PARIS – The Obama administration, in coordination with some European allies, is for the first time considering supplying direct assistance to elements of the Free Syrian Army as they seek to ramp up pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down and end nearly two years of brutal and increasingly deadly violence.
Officials in the United States and Europe said Tuesday the administration is nearing a decision on whether to provide nonlethal assistance to carefully vetted fighters opposed to the Assad regime in addition to what it is already supplying to the political opposition. A decision is expected by Thursday when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will attend an international conference on Syria in Rome that leaders of the opposition Syrian National Coalition have been persuaded to attend, the officials said.
Kerry, who was a cautious proponent of supplying arms to the rebels while he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been consulting with European leaders on how to step up pressure on Assad to leave power. The effort has been as a major focus of his first official trip abroad as America’s top diplomat.
“We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind, wondering where the support is, if it is coming,” Kerry told reporters after meeting British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague.
The officials in Washington and European capitals said the British are pushing proposals to provide military training, body armor and other technical support to members of the Free Syrian Army who have been determined not to have links to extremists. The officials said, however, that the U.S. was not yet ready to consider such action although Washington would not object if the Europeans moved ahead with the plans.
The Obama administration has been deeply concerned about military equipment falling into the hands of radical Islamists who have become a significant factor in the Syrian conflict and could then use that materiel for terrorist attacks or strikes on Israel.
Officials in Washington said the United States was leaning toward providing tens of millions of dollars more in nonlethal assistance to the opposition, including vetted members of the Free Syrian Army who had not been receiving direct U.S. assistance. So far, assistance has been limited to funding for communications and other logistical equipment, a formalized liaison office and an invitation to opposition coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib to visit the United States in the coming weeks.