U.S. cautiously resumes aid to Syria rebels, but with deaths, refugees mounting is Obama's policy working?

A Syrian rebel loyal to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and its commanding Supreme Military Council walks through a warehouse near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, Sept. 2013. CBS

WASHINGTON -- In a tentative step forward in resuming support for rebels deemed moderate and trustworthy, the U.S. has delivered medical kits to fighters in northern Syria, and hopes to resume shipments of other non-lethal supplies.

This latest delivery consisted of what one U.S. official described as "life-saving medical equipment" to be used on the battlefield in a brutal 3-year war that has killed upwards of 130,000 people.

The shipment was small, but significant in that it was the first aid to be delivered since the State Department suspended support to the Free Syrian Army's military council last December, after an Islamic extremist rebel faction seized warehouses where U.S. aid was stored.

Symbolically the resumption is important and the way it was delivered -- straight into the hands of individual rebel unit commanders rather than to a warehouse -- shows that the Obama administration believes it has at least some sense of which groups it can work with on the ground, and how to keep aid out of the hands of al Qaeda-linked extremists.

Congress was consulted before the aid was resumed.

Food and medical assistance to Syrian civilians in cities under siege remains stuck, however, in part because it is being delivered via the United Nations, which requires permission from the Syrian government to act inside the country.

Despite official condemnations of its brutality, the Assad regime remains the diplomatically recognized government of the Syrian Arab Republic at the U.N.

In short, U.N. bureaucracy and Russian attempts to protect its ally have prevented the global body from forcing the Syrian government to help its own people.

The result is what U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power referred to on Tuesday as the "most catastrophic humanitarian crisis any of us have seen in a generation."

Power made those comments on the heels of a small diplomatic victory; Russia agreed to sign a U.N. resolution that calls for Syria to halt attacks on civilians and allow in unfettered humanitarian access. But the resolution has no teeth -- there are no enforcement actions for violations. In 30 days, it will be gauged as to whether Syria has implemented the requirements.

As for future action, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia argues that Russia "absolutely" wields the influence to demand Syria comply. The Senator, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations committee which has oversight of the State Department, told CBS News that every possibility should be explored within the U.N. to make that possible.

"There has got to be a case that the U.S. makes to be more aggressive on aid and delivery," Kaine said. He declined to say whether he supported humanitarian corridors, airlifts or specific ways to make those deliveries.

He sees the refugee crisis as the preeminent issue in the Syria conflict right now, as the influx of desperate civilians fleeing their homes in the war-torn country puts increasing strain on an already fragile region.

Currently, one in four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. That statistic is just one of many that raise questions about whether the Obama administration's so-called "contain and mitigate" strategy has accomplished either of its two goals.

Senator Angus King of Maine told CBS News he is also worried about the regional spillover from the war. He sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee and recently visited Syria's neighbor countries with Kaine. King said Lebanese, Israeli and other regional leaders that he met are concerned about jihadist fighters from Syria crossing borders into their territory.

"Lebanon is suffering from the echoes of the Syrian war," he said.

Secretary of State John Kerry, a member of the Obama cabinet who favors more robust action in Syria, also appears to be hamstrung in any effort to stop the conflict.

The State Department acknowledged Wednesday that the Assad regime has retaliated against the delegates sent by the Syrian opposition to recent peace talks in Geneva by labeling them as terrorists, freezing their assets and arresting some of their family members.

That retribution is not an encouraging sign for the next round of U.N.-sponsored and U.S.-supported peace talks.

Kerry travels to Paris next week to attend a conference focused on the impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon. This Friday his lead envoy to the Syrian opposition, U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, is expected to quietly exit the job. No replacement has been named yet.

  • Margaret Brennan

    Principally assigned to the State Department, Margaret Brennan also serves as a CBS News general assignment correspondent based in Washington, D.C.

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