In the nearly 17 months since Syrians joined the clamor for change that swept the Middle East last year, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans have voted in elections, chosen new leaders and embarked, however messily, on democratic transitions.
Syria, by contrast, is hurtling ever deeper into an all-out conflict with no end in sight, “and all we get is words,” said Yasser Abu Ali, a spokesman for one of the Free Syrian Army battalions in the town of al-Bab, which lies 30 miles northeast of Aleppo.
The rebels say they don’t want direct military intervention in the form of troops on the ground. But they have repeatedly appealed for a no-fly zone similar to the effort that helped Libyan rebels topple Moammar Gaddafi last year and for supplies of heavy weapons to counter the regime’s vastly superior firepower, say rebels and opposition figures.
When the regime falls, as the rebel battalion spokesman assumes it eventually will, Syrians will not forget that their pleas for help went unanswered, he said.
“America will pay a price for this,” he said. “America is going to lose the friendship of Syrians, and no one will trust them anymore. Already we don’t trust them at all.”
It is not entirely accurate that the United States is doing nothing to help the Syrian opposition, nor is it clear what more it usefully could or should be doing, analysts say. A debate is raging within the Obama administration over whether it is prudent to step up support for the rebels now that the effort to promote a diplomatic solution through the United Nations has failed.
President Obama has already authorized the provision of nonlethal aid to the opposition, including communications and satellite equipment. The State Department has been reaching out to Assad opponents inside Syria with a view to identifying potential allies and recipients of assistance.
Syrian opposition figures say they have received some financial help to buy arms from U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar. NATO member Turkey is also facilitating rebel movements across its 550-mile border with Syria, including, some Syrians say, the transfer of arms.
But the assistance has been small-scale, intermittent, and dwarfed by the demands of an expanding battlefield that now covers all corners of the country and has escalated to include the use of air power by the government. If some of the weaponry deployed against Assad’s forces has been provided with outside help, most rebel commanders seem unaware of its provenance.