The U.S. has gained greater confidence in recent months that foreign supplies of weapons for Syrian rebels are reaching moderate factions, Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Throughout the two-year Syrian uprising, President Barack Obama’s administration has said that one reason for not sending U.S. arms was they might end up strengthening radical Islamist factions that have taken a lead in some of the fighting. The U.S. has said it isn’t sending weapons, though it acknowledges that other nations are doing so.
While the U.S. is increasing aid to the Syrian opposition and refugees, Kerry indicated in interviews that he doesn’t anticipate a U.S. policy shift on sending weapons to rebels in the conflict that has claimed more than 70,000 lives.
“That’s not my job to do,” he said in an interview with ABC News in Doha, the last stop on his trip to Europe and the Mideast. “That’s the president of the United States’ decision, and I don’t think this is a president who ever takes any option off the table. But for the moment, he feels like what we’re doing is the right policy.”
At a news conference in Qatar, one of the Persian Gulf states reported to be sending weapons, Kerry made clear that the U.S. knows the sources and types of arms going to the rebels, as well as the recipients. That information is shaping Obama’s decisions about how his administration should support Syria’s opposition, Kerry said.
“There are greater guarantees that weapons are being transferred to moderates and directly to the Syrian opposition,” Kerry said yesterday in an appearance with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, who is also foreign minister. He added that “you can’t guarantee that one weapon or another may not fall, in that kind of a situation, into hands that you don’t want it in.”
Kerry made his remarks as Syrian rebels, including fighters from the radical al-Nusra Front, claimed to have seized much of the city of Raqqah in the northeast from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Al-Nusra, an Islamist group, is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S.
The Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011, has dominated much of Kerry’s first trip as secretary of state. He has discussed the situation there with his counterparts in Europe and the Middle East, and he unveiled new non-lethal aid for fighters during a stop in Rome.
Kerry’s made his remarks in Doha shortly after suggesting in an interview with Fox News that the U.S. is training rebel forces. The New York Times had reported Feb. 27 that the U.S. was helping to train rebels “at a base in the region.”
That report offered no other detail and neither did Kerry in the Fox interview. A State Department official later said that Kerry wasn’t referring to any specific U.S. activity. Instead, the official, who asked not to be named to discuss the secretary’s comment, said Kerry was referring to the totality of effort by allies and partners.
“When you look at the whole of those countries that are engaged, the numbers of nations that have come to the table to stand with the Syrian people, there is a very significant amount of support toward the Syrian coalition,” Kerry said at the press conference.
Kerry announced at a conference in Rome last week that the U.S. would directly aid Syrian rebel fighters. The U.S., in its first official contact with the Free Syrian Army, plans to provide non-lethal items such as medical equipment and ready-to-eat meals, and also will give the political opposition $60 million to provide basic services and better governance in areas it now controls, Kerry said.
The U.S. knows about the weapons going to the Syrian rebels, “not that the United States is engaged in a specific allotment process or designating process,” Kerry said yesterday.
“But obviously we are aware and it’s that awareness informs the president’s decisions about what is needed and what the United States is prepared to do at this point in time,” he said.
In Washington, Marine General James Mattis, the outgoing commander of U.S. Central Command, which has responsibilities in the Mideast, recommended against the U.S. providing weapons because of the difficulty of ensuring that they wouldn’t reach extremist factions.
“We don’t want to inadvertently, with the best of intentions, arm people who are basically sworn enemies,” Mattis said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.