Free Syrian Army fighters preparing mortars to fire at forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad .Molhem Barakat/Reuters
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Just a month before a peace conference that will seek an end to the grinding civil war in Syria, the Obama administration’s decision to suspend the delivery of nonlethal aid to the moderate opposition demonstrated again the frustrations of trying to cultivate a viable alternative to President Bashar al-Assad.
The administration acted after warehouses of American-supplied equipment were seized Friday by the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist fighters who have broken with the moderate, American-backed opposition, but who also battle Al Qaeda.
Administration officials said that the suspension, confirmed on Wednesday, was temporary and that the nonlethal aid, which is supplied by the State Department, could flow again.
But with rebels feuding with one another instead of concentrating on fighting Mr. Assad, and with the United States still groping for a reliable partner in Syria, the odds of any peace conference breaking the cycle of bloodshed appeared to have dimmed. For the White House, which has pinned its hopes on a political solution, the fracturing of the opposition raises a number of thorny questions, including whether the United States should work more closely with Islamist forces.
Some experts on Syria said the episode called into question not only the effectiveness of the moderate groups the United States has supported in Syria for the last two years but also the administration’s broader strategy for forcing Mr. Assad to yield power.
“For all practical purposes, the moderate armed opposition that the administration really wanted to support — albeit in a hesitant and halfhearted way — is now on the sidelines,” said Frederic C. Hof, who as a State Department official worked on plans for a political transition in Syria and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Under such circumstances, Mr. Hof said, the prospects for major progress at the peace conference were “pretty grim.”
In the murky events of last Friday, American and opposition officials said, the Islamic Front also seized the northern Syrian headquarters of Gen. Salim Idris, the leader of the military wing of the moderate Syrian opposition, formally known as the Supreme Military Council. According to American officials, General Idris was in Turkey, where he has a house, when the headquarters was taken over and then left for Qatar, which has provided money and weapons to the resistance. He is now said to be back in Turkey.
American officials are still struggling to assess what the internecine battle means. “If we’re able to understand that, we could revert to the provision of nonlethal assistance,” a senior administration official said.
The official said that the United States would not rule out talks with the Islamic Front, but that it was too soon to determine whether the administration would abandon its insistence that all American and allied assistance be funneled through the Supreme Military Council.
For months, Secretary of State John Kerry has argued that a political solution is the only answer for a civil war that has already led to the deaths of more than 100,000 Syrians. His goal is to encourage a handover of power from Mr. Assad to a transitional government.
But Mr. Assad, who has received substantial military support from Iran and Russia, seems as entrenched as ever.
At the same time, the opposition groups that the Obama administration has designated as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people appear to have grown weaker, in part because of their tenuous ties to many of the rebel fighters inside the country and because of the lukewarm support they have received from the West.
The Syria peace conference, which Mr. Kerry originally thought would be held last May, is now scheduled for Jan. 22. It had been planned for Geneva but is to be shifted to the lakeside Swiss town of Montreux because Geneva hotel rooms have been booked for a luxury watch fair.
A major aim of the meeting is to begin the process of identifying Syrians who might serve in a transitional governing body that would run the country if Mr. Assad yielded power.
But as the Islamic fighters have begun to play an increasingly important role in the fight against Mr. Assad, the administration is faced with the choice of whether to include their representatives in any transitional government and perhaps even give them military aid.
“It puts the administration into a situation of having to choose between supporting moderate groups or effective ones,” said Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The episode that prompted the aid suspension occurred last week when the Islamic Front seized control of warehouses in Atmeh, Syria, that contain the American-supplied aid.
According to rebel commanders in Turkey and Syria, the incident unfolded with a confusing series of events that reflects the uncertainty on the front lines amid shifting rebel alliances.
By one account, news spread that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, an extremist group affiliated with Al Qaeda that has clashed with rival insurgents, was planning an attack on the military headquarters and warehouses controlled by General Idris’s Supreme Military Council, which are near the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Syria-Turkey border.
The Supreme Military Council is the nominal leadership of the loose-knit Free Syrian Army, which the United States has promoted as a relatively moderate force and which the State Department has supported with nonlethal aid such as food rations, computers and vehicles.
Fighters from the Islamic Front rushed to the area, they claimed, to protect the warehouses, but ended up seizing them and the American equipment and supplies inside. But other opposition officials say the report of an attack by Qaeda-affiliated extremists was merely a ruse.
Maysara, an Free Syrian Army commander from Saraqeb in Idlib Province who maintains contacts in the Islamic Front, said that when fighters from three Islamic Front battalions reached the headquarters, they found it deserted and believed the commanders there had fled.
The Islamic Front fighters, he said, told him that they then “took the opportunity and stole everything in the headquarters,” including about 40 pickup trucks and tanks.
Under the administration’s division of labor, the State Department is in charge of supplying nonlethal aid while the Syrian rebels runs a covert program to arm and train Syrian rebels.
“We have seen reports that Islamic Front forces have seized the Atmeh headquarters and warehouses,” a State Department official said. “As a result of this situation, the United States has suspended all further deliveries of nonlethal assistance into northern Syria. The humanitarian aid to the Syrian people is not impacted by this suspension.”
The impact of the aid suspension was hard to gauge, as rebels have routinely complained that aid from the United States, Britain and their allies is too little, too late and has had little influence on the conflict.
Khatab, the commander of a small Free Syrian Army battalion, interviewed by phone in Turkey, said that the suspension would hamper fighters like his. But he added that it would ultimately harm the Islamic Front as well, suggesting that whatever the official policies, the Islamic Front had cooperated with the Supreme Military Council and received supplies through it.
Many antigovernment activists reacted with scorn and bravado, saying they did not care about the suspension of aid that they believed had been mostly for show.
“What nonlethal assistance?” said Moaz, an activist who recently fled Syria. “The U.S. is supporting us with expired tuna, and in this way they think they are supporting the revolution.”
Michael R. Gordon and Mark Landler reported from Washington, and Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon.
A version of this article appears in print on December 12, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Suspends Nonlethal Aid to Syria Rebels.