The following editorial appeared in Wednesday's Washington Post:
Syria's agonizing descent into civil war has cost 18,000 lives. What began as a peaceful protest against President Bashir Assad hardened after Assad ordered his troops to open fire on demonstrators. The opposition, fragmented at first, now appears to be waging street-by-street combat in the main cities, including Damascus and Aleppo. Flags of the resistance are flying in some areas they control.
In recent months, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised that the United States would support the Syria opposition with nonlethal assistance, such as communications gear. Separately, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been arming the fighters. Communications equipment is crucial allowing the resistance to coordinate during government-imposed Internet blackouts, providing warnings to civilians about approaching Syrian troops or sharing the location of makeshift medical facilities. It can also help the opposition wage an information war against the Assad regime, documenting atrocities and broadcasting propaganda.
But as The Post's Greg Miller reported this week, the nonlethal aid seems to be slow in arriving. In interviews in Istanbul, a major hub for the opposition effort, Syrian activists expressed disappointment that so little has reached them, despite Clinton's assurances of $25 million in assistance. In response, the State Department says more than 900 pieces of nonlethal equipment have been provided. We're told that some are being shipped without being identified as American gear. But U.S. officials also acknowledge a slow start. Assistant Secretary of State Rick Barton vowed that assistance would speed up "now that we have cleared many of the cobwebs in our own system and with our allies."
Furnishing communications gear is a minimal and inadequate response. For more than a year, President Obama has been assuring the world that Assad is bound to fall, but Assad has refused to take the cue. The White House clung for months to unrealistic hopes of a diplomatic solution, with Russia improbably cast as peacemaker. The United States should be providing leadership in helping the opposition establish safe zones and defeat Assad's tanks and planes. The longer the war goes on, the higher the likely cost to civilians and regional stability. On Monday, the president acknowledged the obvious: "The likelihood of a soft landing seems pretty distant." That's just the point and it's why the United States must overcome the logistical and political hurdles to helping the opposition.
The president's other message on Monday was a warning to Syria not to use its large and lethal chemical-weapons stockpile in the civil war. This was an appropriate message. But it does not resolve the problem of what to do with the dispersed chemical weapons if and when the regime falls. Hopefully, there are no cobwebs in the administration's planning for that contingency.