March 1 (Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that the U.S. will send nonlethal aid directly to Syrian rebels is a welcome expansion of U.S. involvement to end the conflict in Syria.
It doesn’t go far enough, however, either in changing the facts on the ground in a vicious war that pits President Bashar al-Assad’s Scud missiles against the rebels’ small arms, or in winning over and empowering the more moderate elements within a coalition that risks being overshadowed by sectarian extremists.
The U.S. goals are straightforward. It wants to promote a Syria that is stable, in control of its borders and preferably not in thrall to Iran. It doesn’t want a failed state that becomes a haven for al-Qaeda franchises or a highway for weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
How it achieves those goals is far less clear-cut. Two years into the crisis, diplomacy has accomplished little; many think that direct military intervention can bring an end to Syrians’ suffering.
At the same time, a more assertive policy would be destabilizing. It could impede U.S. efforts to persuade Iran, Syria’s ally, from building a nuclear weapon. It would risk turning Russia -- another Assad ally -- from a truculent frenemy into an openly hostile power. And it could draw the U.S. into another bloody, expensive entanglement in the Middle East.
Until now, President Barack Obama has erred too far on the side of caution, as we have said before. The U.S. plan put forward Feb. 28 partly rectifies that imbalance by providing the Free Syrian Army with medical equipment and ready-to-eat meals. It gives the civilian opposition $60 million in humanitarian aid for liberated areas. Senior administration officials also told the New York Times that the U.S. was helping to train rebels at an unspecified base in the region.
The Syrian opposition, however, wants more than Band-Aids, and quickly expressed its frustration with Kerry’s offer. In a news conference with Kerry, President Moaz al-Khatib of the Syrian Opposition Council complained of repeated questions about whether military hardware would end up in the hands of Islamic militants. We think he has a point. The U.S. and the European Union would be wise to expand their definition of nonlethal aid to encompass armored vehicles, body armor and night-vision equipment. In addition to making the rebels a more effective fighting force, such hardware offers a much more tangible manifestation of support.
Stepping up training and assistance through direct channels would help to develop the rebels’ chain of command as well as increasing U.S. influence. Syrian opposition groups have been planning to meet soon in Istanbul to unveil a provisional government. Once Syrian civilians in rebel-held areas can go to representatives of a government in exile for money to provide food, services and humanitarian aid, that government (and its funders) will become more relevant.
The U.S. and the EU would also win hearts and minds -- and save lives -- by boosting assistance to Syria’s neighbors as they cope with a refugee crisis that has pushed almost 1 million Syrians outside the country and displaced almost 2 million within it. As of mid-February, the United Nations had received less than 20 percent of the roughly $1 billion it needs to care for Syrian refugees through June.
There’s no doubt that the U.S. could, if it wanted, decisively shift the balance of military power by flooding the country with arms. But a lasting solution to the sectarian strife between Syria’s majority Sunnis and the minorities that support Assad will remain political. Careful calibration and diplomatic caution are called for, both in aiding Syria’s rebels and as Kerry travels on to Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar -- each with its own role and stake in ending of a conflict that has taken 70,000 lives and roiled the Middle East.
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