PARIS – France's decision to send direct aid to Syria's opposition represents a break for the rebels after months of Western hesitation over fears that costly equipment intended for Syria's opposition could get lost or fall into the wrong hands. But even the French action, rebels and activists say, amounts to so little that it's all but useless.
France, Syria's one-time colonial ruler, began sending the aid without intermediaries last week to three regions of Syria where the regime of President Bashar Assad has lost control, in the first such move by a Western power, a diplomat said Wednesday. But it remains limited, primarily repairing bakeries, water systems and schools. And while apparently more than the indirect assistance extended by other Western countries, it's still far from the magnitude needed to make a difference, Syrian opposition activists said.
In the province of Aleppo, which includes Syria's largest city, and in the southern province of Daraa, activists said even the new French aid hadn't helped. When something is broken, it's locals who must fix it or just make do, said Mohammed Saeed, an activist in the Aleppo area.
"Instead of fixing water systems," Saeed said, "they should go and give food to 5,000 refugees stuck on the border with Turkey."
France has pushed to secure "liberated zones" in Syria amid mounting calls for the international community to do more to prevent bloodshed. It has increased contact with armed rebel groups and started direct aid deliveries last Friday to local citizens' councils in five cities outside the government's control, the diplomatic source said, without disclosing the value of the assistance. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the French actions amid Syria's violence.
Britain has offered a total of $10 million in non-lethal aid to Syria's opposition, including medical supplies, communications gear and generators, intended to reach Syria through a small number of trusted intermediaries. Foreign Secretary William Hague says the supplies are for opposition activists -- not fighters. U.S. and French officials have made similar comments about the destination of their aid.
"The amounts that have been delivered are even laughable," said Ausama Monajed, spokesman for the Syrian National Council, one of several groups of Syrians outside their homeland trying to win over Western backing.
Hague said Friday that EU countries can only provide non-lethal aid to Syrian opposition groups because of an EU arms embargo.
"At the moment we have a European Union arms embargo on Syria, it's not possible or legal for any EU nation to send weapons to anybody in Syria and therefore our chosen route and is the same route of France and the United States, is to give non-lethal assistance and we're doing that," Hague told reporters in response to a question about whether France may be considering providing arms to the Syrian opposition.
He said Britain is also mulling sending protective clothing that doesn't fall under the arms ban.
Hague has acknowledged that the West is cautious, offering equipment only to a small number of groups and in small batches. He said it had only been possible to send equipment after developing better ties to members of the country's varied opposition groups, some of whom are directing the deliveries.
The State Department set aside $25 million to supply the political opposition with non-lethal assistance, distributing 900 pieces of equipment through one program called the Conflict Stabilization Office. The gear includes cameras to document atrocities for potential future prosecutions, encrypted radios, phones, laptops and software that can be used to circumvent Internet controls, according to officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the details.
The Assad regime, meanwhile, continues to get assistance from its allies in Russia and Iran.
The Kremlin has insisted that the continuing Russian arms sales don't violate any international agreements and scoffed at Western demands to halt the trade. Syria's arsenal includes hundreds of Soviet-built combat jets, attack helicopters and missiles, as well as thousands of tanks and artillery systems. Russia also has said it has military advisers in Syria training the Syrians to use Russian weapons, and has helped repair and maintain Syrian weapons.
Iran also has been accused of helping to sustain the regime. The U.S. alleged this week that Tehran is flying weapons to the Assad regime across Iraqi airspace.
The rebels have also benefited from weapons flowing to the rebels via Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere, according to activists and diplomats. Some of the arms, activists say, are purchased with Saudi and Qatari funds. Other sources are murkier.
In Istanbul, however, a rebel commander denied that the opposition was receiving arms deliveries via Turkey, dismissing the Assad regime's claims that foreign powers were stirring up the uprising.
"If we were given any weapons assistance, the Syrian regime would not be standing now," Abdul-Qadir Saleh, the commander of the Tawhid Brigade, the main rebel outfit in Aleppo province, told a press conference. "The weapons we have are either looted from Syrian army depots or came with those who defected."
Peter Harling, of the think tank International Crisis Group, said Syria's opposition, although divided, was more than capable of handling aid. He criticized European and American diplomatic hesitancy as "a tendency to posture, to make statements as opposed to actual policy-making."
Harling said words without action would have long-term consequences among Syrians: "There's a huge disconnect which is causing a lot of frustration and will cause ultimately hostility on the part of Syrians who hear a lot of empty statements but see very little happening on the ground."