President Barack Obama authorized the release of as much as $10 million in additional aid to rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The president, in a directive to the secretaries of state and defense, said today the U.S. would draw on the inventories of government agencies to provide “non-lethal commodities and services,” as well as food and medical supplies.
“The humanitarian crisis has gotten worse” in Syria, Obama told reporters at the White House before starting a meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The president said he and Ban share the view that the conflict there is “at a critical juncture.”
Secretary of State John Kerry met yesterday in London with leaders of the Syrian opposition, who are seeking military aid. The U.S. has provided more than $115 million in non-lethal assistance so far.
“The president has directed his national security team to identify additional measures to continue increasing non-lethal assistance,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said at a briefing earlier today.
The administration is discussing different ways to step up support for rebels who are seeking increased U.S. involvement in the two-year conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people. The U.K. and France are pushing to lift a European Union arms embargo on Syria and already supply rebels with military-style equipment such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
The White House has been reluctant to do more because weapons could end up in the hands of Islamic militants. It’s also concerned about securing Syria’s stocks of chemical weapons.
Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who leads his chamber’s Foreign Relations Committee, said today he will introduce legislation to allow the U.S. to provide weapons to the Syrian opposition.
“The time has come, in some form, to provide military aid” to Syrian rebels, Menendez said at a committee hearing. He also proposed that the U.S. give Syrian rebels training and intelligence on the Assad regime’s assets.
Elizabeth Jones, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Near East affairs, said at Menendez’s hearing that the U.S. remains opposed to arming the opposition.
“We do not believe it is in the United States’ or the Syrian people’s best interests to provide weapons” to opposition fighters, Jones said.
At a separate hearing today, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee the U.S. was prepared to take additional action if circumstances require it.
“We’re ready with options if military force is called for,” Dempsey said. “And if military force can be used effectively, to secure our interest without making the situation worse. We must also be ready with options for an uncertain and dangerous future.”
Menendez and Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, questioned the administration’s stance against arming the rebels. Menendez said he saw no political solution for Syria. McCain called the idea that talks would be possible without offering the opposition military help was “really entertaining.”
“The only way that there would be a negotiated settlement is if Bashar Assad thinks he’s going to lose,” McCain said in an exchange with the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. “And right now with the use of Scud missiles and with fighter aircraft, he’s able to neutralize to a large degree the capabilities of the Syrian resistance.”
Ford said the balance of power on the ground has already shifted from the regime to the opposition.
“If you look at a map of what the regime controls now, compared to what it controlled four or five months ago, you will see that the armed opposition has made steady, slow but steady gains,” Ford said.
“In the end, senator, only a negotiated political solution will provide sustainable and durable solution,” Ford said.