WASHINGTON — The United States is withholding $63 million that it had pledged to the main Syrian opposition organization because the Obama administration is frustrated with the group's disarray and is searching for more credible partners to support in the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad, McClatchy Newspapers reported Friday, citing unnamed officials.
The decision not to fund the Syrian Opposition Coalition contrasts with the administration's continued public expressions of confidence in the group, which has been central to U.S. policy on Syria since last fall and which the administration recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
But U.S. officials said privately that they are fed up with the group's inability to organize, appoint a government-in-exile or reach decisions on a wide range of issues. The officials spoke to McClatchy Newspapers on the condition of anonymity so as to more freely discuss sensitive diplomacy.
State Department officials are fond of repeating that they have pledged $250 million in nonlethal aid to boost the Syrian opposition. However, only a fraction of that — roughly $54 million — has been delivered, and almost none of it has gone directly to the coalition because it's an unstable organization, one official said.
The officials insisted that the plan isn't to give up on the coalition. But they said Secretary of State John Kerry is mulling greater support of rival opposition factions, such as the rebels' military command and grass roots civil society organizations inside Syria.
State Department officials also said they were incensed at the coalition's announcement Friday that it wouldn't attend U.S.-Russian-sponsored peace talks in Geneva. The coalition blamed its refusal to attend on the "invasion of Syria" by Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Assad suggested in a Lebanese TV interview Thursday that he might personally attend.
"If Assad sends someone and they don't, it doesn't look good for them," said Leila Hilal, a Syrian specialist and head of the Middle East task force of the New America Foundation, a Washington research institute.
A widening of the U.S. search for partners might be welcomed inside Syria, where many deride the coalition members as foreign-backed exiles who have been outside Syria, in some cases, for decades, and who haven't shared the hardship of the past two years of conflict.
In February, Kerry announced that the United States would provide $63 million in direct support for the then-fledgling coalition, whose formal name is the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
In April, Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, told a congressional hearing that the aid would be used to "help counter extremists," a reference to Islamist groups that were outperforming moderates forces in both military actions and the delivery of humanitarian aid.