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In Syria, al Qaeda-linked terrorists get credit for American aid

Doing a thankless job is one thing. But doing a thankless job that benefits your sworn enemy is another.

In Syria, where the United States has contributed a total of $385 million in humanitarian aid, almost none of the Syrians receiving aid know it's bankrolled by U.S. taxpayers, according to the Washington Post's Liz Sly. Even worse, some Syrians believe the assistance is provided by the al-Nusra Front, the State Department-listed terrorist group that recently swore allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Here's an example of one such Syrian:

"America has done nothing for us. Nothing at all," said Mohammed Fouad Waisi, 50, spitting out the words for emphasis in his small Aleppo grocery store, which adjoins a bakery where he buys bread every day. The bakery is fully supplied with flour paid for by the United States. But Waisi credited Jabhat al-Nusra - a rebel group the United States has designated a terrorist organization because of its ties to al-Qaeda - with providing flour to the region, though he admitted he wasn't sure where it comes from.

"If America considers itself a friend of Syria, it should start to do something," he said.

Here's an example of another embittered Syrian:

"America is our number one enemy," fumed Ali Mahmoud al-Kak, 43, an unemployed taxi driver, as he bought bread at another of the Aleppo bakeries supplied entirely with flour paid for by the United States.

All of this anger exists despite the fact that U.S.-purchased flour has fed 210,000 people per day and U.S.-purchased blankets have helped 168,000 people sleep. (It's also worth mentioning that the United States is providing training and communications equipment to rebels and helping coordinate the flow of foreign weapons to opposition fighters.) According to Sly's report, the United States can't advertise its contributions because of security concerns.

But this is by no means the first time Syrians have vented bitter frustrations with the United States to the press. In a memorable interview by NPR's Kelly McEvers last year, the grieving sister of a killed Syrian rebel declared that the United States would pay dearly for not providing more help. "We won't forget this," the woman said. "When we control Syria, we won't forget that you forgot about us."

Interestingly, this idea that a post-Assad Syria could take vengeance on the United States has also played a significant role in public debates about whether Washington should increase its military support of the rebels. The primary proponent of this thinking is Arizona Senator John McCain, who told his colleagues last month that the United States should consider the potential blowback of not intervening. Here are his floor remarks:

The conflict in Syria is breeding a lost generation - a whole new generation of extremists. Earlier this year, I met a Syrian teacher in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan who told me that the generation of young Syrians growing up in these camps, and inside Syria, will take revenge on those who did nothing to help them in their hour of greatest need. We should be ashamed of our collective failure to come to the aid of the Syrian people. But more than that, we should be deeply, deeply concerned. And as much as I want to disagree with that Syrian teacher, I am haunted by the belief that she is exactly right.

Of course, there's also another side of the coin, as the National Interest's Nikolas Gvosdev pointed out in response to McCain:

If the United States were to intervene in Syria on behalf of the rebellion, and actively begin killing Syrians, what guarantee is there that the "next generation" of those killed and wounded by American action would not take revenge themselves? Certainly after a U.S. intervention, the losing side in the Syrian civil war-the Alawites-would also have an incentive to "take revenge" on America for their defeat and dispossession. Particularly given their past as a secretive, insular community, they would be well poised to retreat to their mountain strongholds. They could pass on to their children a desire to take vengeance for their loss unless the United States were to intervene on the ground to separate and secure the various Syrian communities and protect them against the excesses of the Sunni majority.

Clearly, we're damned if we do and damned if we don't. The question is which damnation is worse.

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Americans hate the Muslim Brotherhood

What is the first thought that comes to mind when you think of the Muslim Brotherhood? According to a new Zogby poll, there's one word that wins by a mile when you ask Americans: "Terrorists."

The survey, which was commissioned by the Arab American Institute and conducted last month, shows just how negative American attitudes toward Egypt's most powerful political and social organization have become. Only 13 percent of those surveyed said they had a favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a scant four percent said that the organization's victory in recent elections was a "positive development."

These dismal results, to be sure, are not solely the result of the actions of the Brotherhood itself. A plurality of Americans surveyed (44 percent) said they had an unfavorable perceptions of Muslims in general -- no matter what the Brotherhood does, it's probably not going to win over those people. But it would be a mistake to simply chalk up the Brotherhood's image problem to Islamophobia: Even among Americans who said they had a favorable view of Muslims, only six percent said the Brotherhood's electoral victory was positive, and only 27 percent said the organization is committed to democracy.

Americans' negative views about the Brotherhood are spilling over to their perception about Egypt. 48 percent of Americans now say they have an unfavorable view of the country -- a jump of 14 percent from last year.  Egypt's image has taken a beating ever since the revolution: The proportion of Americans saying they have a favorable view of Egypt has plummeted from 58 percent in 2010 to 36 percent now. Not all of this can be attributed to President Mohamed Morsy's actions, because the deterioration in perceptions was evident in early 2012, before he took office. Rather, it appears to be a toxic cocktail of street violence and broader Islamist ascendancy that is behind the negative views of Egypt.

These views could help undo the decades-long alliance between Washington and Cairo. Only 22 percent of Americans surveyed agreed that U.S. aid to Egypt - which totaled over $1.5 billion last year - should continue. 47 percent disagreed, saying that military and civilian aid should be cut under a Muslim Brotherhood-led government. A majority of Americans also favor supporting other Arab governments' efforts to crack down on the Brotherhood -- a view that could impact U.S. policy across the Middle East.

American officials of any political persuasion know how to read a poll. So the next time a congressman stands up to attack the Egyptian government or block U.S. aid to Cairo, it helps to keep one thing in mind: It's a political winner. 

 

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