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Doubts about ‘awakening’

However, he said, more needs to be done. For example, he said, the United States should channel all humanitarian aid through these councils to bolster their credibility against al Qaeda, as well as equip civilian police with uniforms and weapons, and support civil law and judicial systems.

“We must empower the emerging awakening against the transnational terrorist groups,” said Mr. Shahbandar, a former Defense Department official.

“Empowering moderate rebels is in America’s national security interests at a time when al Qaeda sees Syria as the front lines of an international terror campaign,” he said. “It’s still not too late.”

He likens the situation to the Sunni Awakening during the Iraq War in 2006, when moderate Sunnis began to reject al Qaeda extremists.

Although supporting these councils is a part of the U.S. policy in Syria, intelligence officials are skeptical about an “awakening” of moderate rebels. Pentagon officials doubt that any rebel groups would promote U.S. interests, even if Washington backed them.

Syria has about 1,000 armed rebel groups, 80 percent of which are under the Free Syrian Army umbrella, Mr. Mouaz said.

But with no end in sight to the civil war, supporting the local councils is the only prudent measure against al Qaeda extremists, advocates say.

“Right now, we still have a chance to support the right people in a situation that we simply can’t ignore,” said Mr. Mouaz, who recently met with high-ranking Pentagon officials.