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U.S. Steps Up Aid (But No Arms) To Syrian Exiles

Rajiv Shah (left), the head of USAID, speaks with children during a visit at the Oncupinar Syrian refugee camp in Turkey, near the Syrian border, on Nov. 27. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration remains wary about arming Syria's rebels. But when it comes to humanitarian aid, the U.S. contribution, over $250 million, is second only to Turkey.

Then there is non-lethal aid, an additional $50 million for communication equipment and training courses.

If you are surprised by the numbers, so are Syrian activists, who say American support is still almost invisible on the ground. Now, U.S. officials are highlighting the American aid profile.

High-Profile Visit

Rajiv Shah, the head of the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, made the first high-level visit to Turkey's largest refugee camp last week.

The Killis camp, within sight of the Syrian border, houses more than 13,000 refugees. Shah was accompanied by a delegation of Turkish officials and a large contingent of the Turkish media in a tour to showcase U.S. support.

With more than 130,000 Syrians registered in border camps, Turkish officials say they are overwhelmed by the influx. The U.S. is stepping in to help with a new $3.9 million dollar U.S.-funded program to provide food aid for all the residents of the Killis camp.

Matthew Nims, the deputy director of the USAID office for Food for Peace, explained that every family gets an electronic voucher card. "It's a stipend through an electronic Visa card," he says.

The cards are accepted in the food markets in the camp. Nims said that by the end of December, 40,000 e-vouchers will be distributed and by this summer, the program will expand for 100,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey.

As the U.S. steps up aid programs outside Syria, for the first time, U.S. officials acknowledge U.S. aid is also going inside the country.

"We know we've reached more than 300,000 Syrians with medical support," said Shah, referring to field clinics and hospitals in rebel held areas. "We know there's some hospitals in Homs and Dera'a — you walk into that hospital — 80, 90 percent of the medical supplies are coming from American assistance."

But many Syrians remain skeptical of U.S. support because it does nothing to end the rule of President Bashar Assad, said Elizabeth O'Bagy, an analyst with the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. While American support is largely focused on humanitarian aid, she said, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are sending cash and weapons to rebel groups.

"This had led to the perception that the U.S. is not helping at all and actually created a certain amount of resentment towards the U.S. for not being more active," said O'Bagy.

Quiet Support Of Activists

But the U.S. State Department is supporting Syria's political opposition, in projects that have been under wraps until recently.

One program, a multimillion-dollar media project called Basma, or "fingerprint" in English, is run out of an office in Istanbul where Syrian activists write and produce reports for a Facebook page and the Basma website. A promotional video explains the goals of Basma: "to support a peaceful transition for a new Syrian nation that supports and guards the freedom of all of its citizens."

One of the reporters on the team, who can't be named because she still has family inside Syria, said, "It's our dream to be like the voice of new Syria."

But the media effort is not well-known inside Syria as local, grass-roots media outlets begin to emerge.

In another U.S.-funded program, kept quiet over security concerns, young activists, mostly those in the front lines in the early days of the revolt, are invited to Istanbul for workshops. They gather in hotels, from towns and villages inside Syria. They are now members of revolutionary councils — civilians trying to restore services and local government in places out of regime control.

One of the trainers says the program tries to prepare them for leadership in a country that's been ruled from the top down for 40 years.

"Someone who's a doctor or a lawyer or owned a bakery are now finding themselves in positions where they have to make decisions and they have to call the shots. ... They're unsure over how to proceed," said the trainer.

But they are also uncertain even after the training ends because the U.S. program doesn't include resources, cash, to fund projects in places where garbage is piling up, fuel for bakeries is running low, and thousands of Syrians are now homeless and cold as winter sets in.

Money is power in Syria, O'Bagy tells NPR, and it's the armed groups who have the cash; the most religiously militant have plenty of private backers.

"The rebel groups do have greater access, they do have greater means and this has given them leverage over the political activists," O'Bagy said.

As the fight grinds on, rebel groups, including the Islamists, are growing more powerful, while the more secular, civilian activists say they are still begging for support.

Rima Marrouch contributed to this article.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The U.S. government is wary of arming Syria's rebels. But when it comes to humanitarian aid for Syrians, the U.S. is second only to Turkey, spending over $250 million. Add to that another $50 million for communications equipment and training.

If you're surprised by those numbers, well, so are Syrian activists who say they see little support on the ground. So now U.S. officials are starting to highlight America's aid profile in the region. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Antakya, Turkey.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This is the largest refugee camp on the Turkish border. There are plenty of photo ops with Dr. Rajiv Shah, the head of USAID. It's an effort to showcase U.S. support for Syrians in the first high-profile official visit here. One stop: a school for Syrian children.

DR. RAJIV SHAH: How old are these children?

AMOS: With more than 130,000 Syrians registered in border camps, the Turkish government is overwhelmed, and the U.S. has stepped in to help.

SHAH: And you're really treating these displaced Syrians as guests.

AMOS: There's a new U.S.-funded program to feed the 13,000 Syrian residents in the camp.

MATTHEW NIMS: I'm Matthew Nims. I'm the deputy director of the USAID Office of Food for Peace.

AMOS: Nims is on hand to tour the food markets run by private Turkish companies. Every Syrian family here gets a food voucher.

NIMS: Which is a stipend through an electronic Visa card that allows a family to go to three supermarkets here.

AMOS: The program will expand to feed 100,000 Syrians by the end of the summer, he says. As the U.S. steps up humanitarian programs outside Syria, for the first time, officials acknowledge U.S. aid is also going inside the country.

SHAH: We know we've reached more than 300,000 Syrians with medical support.

AMOS: That's Dr. Rajiv Shah, and he's talking about field clinics and hospitals in rebel-held areas.

SHAH: And we know there are some hospitals in Homs and Daraa, you walk into that hospital, 80, 90 percent of the medical supplies are coming from American assistance.

AMOS: But for many Syrians, U.S. support is still almost invisible, says Elizabeth O'Bagy at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. While American support is largely focused on humanitarian aid, she says Saudi Arabia and Qatar are sending cash and weapons to rebel groups.

ELIZABETH O'BAGY: This has led to the perception that the U.S. is not helping at all and actually created a certain amount of resentment towards the U.S. for not being more active.

AMOS: But the U.S. State Department is active, supporting Syria's political opposition in projects that have been under wraps until recently.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: This is a promotional video for a multimillion-dollar media project called Basma, fingerprint in English.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Basma's objective is to support a peaceful transition for a new Syrian nation that supports and guards the freedom of all its citizens.

AMOS: Syrian activists write and produce reports for Facebook and the Web says this reporter who can't be named because she has family inside Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And it's our dream to be like the voice of new Syria.

AMOS: In another program that's been kept quiet for months, young activists, mostly those in the front lines in the early days of the revolt, are invited for workshops. They gather in hotels in Istanbul, from towns and villages inside Syria. They're now members of revolutionary councils, civilians trying to restore services and local government in places out of regime control.

One of the trainers, who can't be named for her security, says the program tries to prepare them for leadership in a country that's been ruled from the top down for 40 years.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Someone who's a doctor or a lawyer or owned a bakery are now finding themselves in positions where they have to make decisions and they have to call the shots, and they don't - they're unsure over how to proceed.

AMOS: But also uncertain even after the training because the U.S. program doesn't include resources, cash to fund projects in places where the garbage is piling up, fuel for bakeries is running low and thousands of Syrians are now homeless and cold as winter sets in. Money is power in Syria, says O'Bagy, and it's the armed groups who have the cash. The most religiously militant have plenty of private backers.

O'BAGY: The rebel groups do have greater access. They do have greater means, and this has given them leverage over the political activists.

AMOS: As the fight grinds on, rebel groups including the Islamists are growing more powerful while the more secular civilian activists say they are still begging for support. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Antakya, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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