By DESMOND BUTLER and ZEINA KARAM
BEIRUT — The U.S. and Britain said Wednesday they were suspending deliveries to rebels in northern Syria of nonlethal aid such as communications equipment and laptops after some of the gear was seized by Islamic militants.
The decision reflected fears of the growing strength of al-Qaida-linked forces among the rebels in the civil war, complicating the West’s goal of bolstering the moderate opposition and persuading President Bashar Assad to step down.
Humanitarian aid such as food and blankets would not be affected, officials said, as a blustery storm dumped snow and torrential rain in the region and plunged temperatures below freezing, heaping more misery on refugees inside and outside Syria.
The suspension dealt another blow to the Syrian opposition, highlighting diminishing international support for their cause as the extremists rapidly expand their grip across rebel-held territories.
The decision by the U.S. and Britain comes few days after ultraconservative opposition factions took control of Free Syrian Army bases and warehouses containing lethal and nonlethal weapons at the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Syria and Turkey.
The bases belonged to the FSA’s Supreme Military Council, led by Gen. Salim Idris, a secular-minded, Western-backed moderate.
Their takeover by the Islamic Front, a new alliance of six of the most powerful Islamic rebel groups in Syria, was an embarrassing setback for Idris, who has seen his influence greatly diminished by the rise of al-Qaida affiliated militants flush with cash, weapons and battleground experience.
“We have seen the reports that Islamic Front forces have seized the headquarters in question and warehouses belonging to the Supreme Military Council, and we’re obviously concerned by those reports,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in announcing the suspension. “We’re still gathering facts and consulting with Gen. Idris and the Supreme Military Council staff to inventory the status of U.S. equipment and supplies that have been provided to the SMC.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. assistance “continues through other neighboring countries to other parts of Syria.”