ROME – In a significant policy shift, the Obama administration said Thursday it would for the first time provide nonlethal aid directly to rebels who are battling to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, announcing an additional $60 million in assistance to Syria’s political opposition.
The modest package of aid to the military wing of the opposition will consist of an as yet undetermined amount of food rations and medical supplies for members of the Free Syrian Army who will be carefully screened to ensure they do not have links to extremists.
The move was announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at an international conference on Syria in Rome, and several European nations are expected in the coming days to take similar steps in working with the military wing of the opposition in order to ramp up pressure on Assad to step down and pave the way for a democratic transition. However, a number of Syrian opposition figures expressed disappointment with the limited assistance.
“We do this because we need to stand on the side of those in this fight who want to see Syria rise again and see democracy and human rights,” Kerry said. “The stakes are really high, and we can’t risk letting this country in the heart of the Middle East be destroyed by vicious autocrats or hijacked by the extremists.”
“No nation, no people should live in fear of their so-called leaders,” he said, adding that President Barack Obama’s “decision to take further steps now is the result of the brutality of a superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah.”
Kerry and senior officials from 11 countries most active in calling for Assad to leave said in a joint statement released by the Italian foreign ministry that they had agreed in Rome on “the need to change the balance of power on the ground.” It said the countries represented “will coordinate their efforts closely so as to best empower the Syrian people and support the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army in its efforts to help them exercise self-defense.”
Britain and France, two countries that Kerry visited before traveling to Italy on his first official trip as secretary of state, have signaled that they want to begin supplying the rebels with defensive military equipment such as combat body armor, armored vehicles, night vision goggles and training. They are expected to make decisions on those items in the near future, in line with new guidance from the European Union, which still bars the provision of weapons and ammunition to anyone in Syria.
Kerry defended the limited U.S. assistance, saying it was just part of what was being offered and that other countries would fill in any gaps. He said he was confident that the “totality” of the aid should be enough to prod Assad to start changing his calculations on remaining in power.
Washington has already provided $385 million in humanitarian aid to Syria’s war-weary population and $54 million in communications equipment, medical supplies and other nonlethal assistance to Syria’s political opposition. The U.S. also has screened rebel groups for Turkey and American allies in the Arab world that have armed rebel fighters.
But until now, no U.S. dollars or provisions have gone directly to rebel fighters, reflecting concerns about forces that have allied themselves with more radical Islamic elements since Assad’s initial crackdown on peaceful protesters in March 2011.
The $60 million in new aid to the political opposition is intended to help the opposition govern newly liberated areas of Syria by aiding in the delivery of services and improving rule of law and human rights as well as to blunt the influence of extremists who have made inroads in some places.
The rations and medical supplies for the fighters will be delivered to the military council for distribution only to carefully vetted members of the Free Syrian Army, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. will be sending technical advisers to the Syrian National Coalition offices in Cairo to oversee and help them spend the money for good governance and rule of law. The advisers will be from nongovernmental organizations and other groups that do this kind of work.
The foreign ministers’ presentation was disrupted by one protester who called on them to “stop supporting terrorists.”