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Syrian Rebels: New U.S. Aid Not Helpful Without Weapons


For American policy analysts, today's announcement of direct food aid and medical supplies to Syrian rebels is a significant shift. But a top commander in the forces fighting the Syrian regime says it's not nearly enough. NPR's Deborah Amos met that commander in northern Syria today.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: To get to Colonel Abdul Jabbar Akaidi's headquarters in Aleppo province, you drive past a camp of more than 10,000 displaced Syrians, a small town of misery and rain-soaked tents. Ambulances roar through the border gate to Turkey's hospitals. A major battle for a military airport called Mannagh is less than 10 miles away.

In this office in a farmhouse, Akaidi says the rebels will take that airport soon as he looks over Google maps. He's showing us on his computer the outlines of the airport. And this is Mannagh Airport. He's the top commander of Aleppo's military council. He heads the rebel's armament committee. His reaction to the U.S. offer of food and medicine directly to the rebels was disappointment as rebel demands for weapons to fight the Assad regime were again ignored.

COLONEL ABDUL JABBAR AKAIDI: (Through translator) We have no need for medical supplies or for food stuffs. We need more than this. If they are not going to offer us weaponry, then the least they can do, which we asked for before, is to give us equipment to remove the rubble.

AMOS: Rebel-held areas in Aleppo province have been hit repeatedly with ballistic missiles in the past week. More than 140 died when a residential neighborhood was flattened, and there are still bodies to recover, says Akaidi.

AKAIDI: (Through translator) We need equipment to remove wreckage and rubble. We need police dogs to sniff out survivors. We need training for this, and this is as important as weaponry. Can they not offer that?

AMOS: For this rebel commander, the American offer on the table is late, too late, he says. The destruction in Aleppo has led some to compare it to Stalingrad in the Second World War. Ballistic missiles are fired by a Syrian artillery brigade outside of Damascus and travel more than 200 miles, he says. He has an early warning system, but it doesn't do much good.

AKAIDI: (Through translator) We have people inside that brigade itself that give us advance warning of an hour or two hour. The problem is that what can I do? Do I empty out an entire city? So all we can do is await death is what it amounts to.

AMOS: Over a sparse lunch at the farmhouse, Akaidi confirms recent reports that new and more sophisticated weapons have been delivered to his battalion. He won't say who supplied the surface-to-air missiles that knocked down a regime helicopter this week, but he was quick to point out who is not supplying those weapons.

AKAIDI: (Through translator) Certainly not from the Americans.

AMOS: Akaidi says he's formed a new unit of defected soldiers, professionals with experience in air defense. He says U.S. fears that these weapons will end up in the hands of Islamist groups is misplaced.

AKAIDI: (Through translator) And I'm willing to sign a piece of paper that will take me to any court-martial anywhere in the world if these weapons fall in the hands of quote, unquote, "terrorists." A soldier for 30 years before he defected, Akaidi is bitter over support for what he says is a small number of Islamist rebel groups funded through private channels in the Gulf. He wants Western military support to change that balance.

(Through translator) If we had received the support, then we could have more effect on the ground, but then when you see these Islamist groups and they are more effective, this has caused the balance to be incorrect.

AMOS: New weapons are coming. They're coming to you. Does that then change the balance?

AKAIDI: (Through translator) I want to stress a point here. You speak as if we are receiving a storm of weapons. In fact, we are receiving the bare minimum to keep us alive.

AMOS: Can the Obama administration make a difference in Syria? Colonel Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, who is looking at the battle from the front lines of Aleppo, is not convinced. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.