The U.S. will provide support directly to Syrian rebel fighters for the first time, increasing U.S. involvement in the two-year-old war to oust President Bashar al-Assad, Secretary of State John Kerry said.
The U.S., in its first official contact with the Free Syrian Army, plans to provide it with non-lethal aid such as medical equipment and ready-to-eat meals, and also will give the political opposition $60 million to offer basic services and better governance in areas it now controls, Kerry said yesterday at a conference in Rome of nations supporting the rebels.
Kerry expressed strong support for ending Assad’s 12-year rule, while announcing limited steps that reflect U.S. wariness of getting drawn into the conflict and concern about Islamic extremists among the rebel factions.
“No nation, no people should live in fear of their so-called leaders,” said Kerry, who is on his first trip through Europe and the Middle East as the chief U.S. diplomat. There’s international “revulsion” over the Assad regime, he said.
The U.S. move drew a muted response from Syrian Opposition Council President Moaz al-Khatib, who criticized the U.S. for its continuing refusal to provide arms to the opposition. The rebels have received weapons from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, supplementing those they have taken from Syrian military forces.
Syrian rebels have been trying to force Assad from power since March 2011. The conflict has killed about 70,000 people, created almost 1 million refugees, and could destabilize Jordan, strengthen Sunni radicals in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia and threaten Israel.
Tired of Questions
Al-Khatib made clear that he thinks more help could be forthcoming. He didn’t thank the U.S. for the additional aid in his public remarks yesterday, airing instead his frustrations about Western reluctance to arm the fighters.
Citing “questions we as Syrians are tired of and I as a president am tired of,” al-Khatib listed issues about which the administration repeatedly raises concerns.
President Barack Obama’s administration has been reluctant to arm fighters because of the risk that weapons could end up in the hands of Islamic militants, such as members of the al-Nusra Front. It has expressed concern about control of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks and pressed the opposition to stress its respect for minority rights.
“No terrorist in the world has such a savage nature as the Syrian regime,” al-Khatib said as he stood beside Kerry and spoke of “massacres” and the “suffering of Syria at the hands of the mafia that is ruling it now.”
Al-Khatib, a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus who has presented himself as a moderate, described Western media as “obsessed” with the length of fighters’ beards, a reference to religious Muslims.
“We are Muslim fighters,” he said, adding that “Islam, as we see it, wants the best for everybody.” Closing with a plea for cooperation, al-Khatib said, “we are all descended from Adam,” so people should “cooperate, not kill each other.”
Al-Khatib had originally refused to come to Rome, expressing disappointment with the Western response to the violence in Syria. He changed his mind after Kerry sent an emissary to Cairo and then called al-Khatib himself. At the time, al-Khatib made clear that future relations with the West would depend on what happened in Rome.
The U.S. and its allies “believe the Syrian Opposition Coalition can successfully lead the way to a peaceful transition, but they cannot do it alone,” Kerry said. “They need more support from all of us.”
When pressed on how supplies of food and medicine will help “change the calculation on the ground for President Assad,” as Kerry has said on this trip to Europe, he said the new U.S. aid had to be seen in the context of a larger effort by many nations.
“I am very confident from what I heard in there from other foreign ministers that the totality of this effort is going to have an impact,” Kerry said after the conference. The U.S. remains committed to a diplomatic resolution that includes “a transitioning governing body with full executive powers born on the basis of mutual consent,” he said.
While the U.S. and the European Union won’t supply weapons, European officials are discussing an increase in non-lethal military aid, including military vehicles, body armor and night-vision equipment. The move is driven by concern that extremists are gaining influence in areas that have fallen out of Syrian government control and a desire to strengthen the democratic opposition.
A U.S. official, who asked not to be identified in briefing reporters, was unwilling to discuss whether the U.S. now will help train the rebel fighters, as was reported yesterday by the New York Times.
Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called the U.S. aid announcement “a step in the right direction.”
The decision to send supplies to the Supreme Military Council and Free Syrian Army “gets us around the line of staying clear of armed groups, so it makes aid provision of all kinds much easier,” Tabler said in an e-mail.
Still, “we don’t know how the aid will be moved into the country and to whom,” he said. “Getting that right will help take down Assad more quickly and prepare for the day after. Getting that wrong could prolong his tenure and come back to haunt us.”
In addition to the aid to the fighters, the $60 million being provided to the Syrian Opposition Coalition will be used to deliver basic services, including security, sanitation and education, and extending the rule of law and stability, Kerry said. The U.S. will use technical advisers drawn from nongovernmental organizations that the State Department regularly works with in the Middle East to implement the aid and monitor its use.
The new aid comes on top of more than $50 million in previously announced non-lethal aid to help activists organize across the country, including the provision of equipment such as radios. The U.S. also continues to provide $385 million in humanitarian assistance to help internally displaced Syrians and refugees in neighboring countries.