Kerry to Offer More Syrian Rebel Aid as Lawmakers Seek Arms

Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to announce more non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels today at a meeting of groups fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad, as U.S. lawmakers press the Obama administration to provide military help for the insurrection.

The latest assistance could include humanitarian supplies, military vehicles, night-vision goggles and communications equipment, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified before the plan is announced. Specifics will be determined at today’s meeting, said a second official who wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. The aid being discussed falls short of the weaponry or military engagement sought by some Democratic and Republican members of Congress.

Kerry met with Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib in Istanbul today before going on to a full meeting of foreign ministers involved in the Friends of Syria group, including his counterparts from the U.K., France, Italy, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia among others.

U.S. administration officials acknowledged in April 17 congressional testimony that efforts to unify the opposition’s political factions haven’t succeeded and that their understanding of rebel military forces has deteriorated as extremist groups fighting Assad, such as the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, have gotten stronger.

Regime Alternative

“We’re trying to get everybody on the same page,” Kerry told the House Foreign Relations Committee. Opposition groups have been hamstrung by infighting, policy differences and personal rivalries, reducing their ability to provide a viable alternative to the regime.

“We are working very, very closely with the Syrian opposition, with the Syrian military coalition, and with our core partners,” Kerry said.

The same day, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, in distinguishing moderate rebel military groups from radicals, it’s “actually more confusing on the opposition side today than it was six months ago.”

Dempsey had urged arming the opposition, along with former Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Arms Flow

“Now that we’ve seen the emergence of al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, notably,” Dempsey said April 17, referring to Islamist groups, “and now that we’ve seen photographs of some of the weapons that have been flowing into Syria in the hands of those groups, now I am more concerned than I was before.”

Lawmakers urging the administration to take greater action include New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, the Democrat who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Representative Ed Royce, the California Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

They point to the Assad regime’s use of Scud missiles, air strikes, and possibly chemical weapons. More than 1.3 million Syrians have flooded Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, 4.25 million more are internally displaced, and more than 75,000 have been killed, according to the UN.

Safe Zones

Royce has prepared bipartisan legislation calling for the U.S. to arm Syrian rebels, while Levin and others have urged President Barack Obama to support the creation of safe zones along the Turkish border with Syria and the deployment of Patriot missile batteries “to neutralize” Syrian planes, Levin said April 17.

“We must do more to tip the balance in favor of the Syrian opposition,” Royce said April 17.

The Defense Department is assessing options for military intervention, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Levin’s committee on April 17. The administration remains opposed to taking that step, because it could hinder humanitarian assistance, strain international alliances, pull the U.S. into a long military commitment, and “have the unintended consequences of bringing the United States into a broader regional conflict or proxy war,” Hagel said.

The U.S. military is engaged in “robust” military planning for a “range of contingencies” including the use of chemical weapons, Hagel said. Obama has declared the use of Syria’s chemical stockpiles, the largest in the region, a “red line” that would prompt a U.S. response.

Jordan Aid

One $70 million U.S. effort provides Jordan with training and equipment to detect and stop chemical-weapons transfers along its border with Syria and develop capacity to identify and secure chemical weapons assets, Hagel said. Similar work is taking place in Turkey and Iraq, he said.

Dempsey said military contingency planning includes the possibility of creating safe zones in Turkey and Jordan.

Kerry told lawmakers the administration hopes to follow the so-called Geneva plan, a political blueprint backed by Russia that provides a structure for Assad’s departure and a political transition.

Kerry’s aid announcement in Istanbul is expected to outline more than $100 million in military equipment including sophisticated communications gear, armored vehicles and night vision systems, the administration official said. He will also announce $20 million in humanitarian aid on top of nearly $385 million the U.S. has already provided, the official said.

NATO Talks

After Istanbul, Kerry will visit Brussels for a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization foreign ministers, where he will see Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who will be there for a NATO-Russia meeting. Russia, which has protected Syria from vetoes at the United Nations and continues to provide the regime with weapons, declared yesterday that the Syrian conflict has become a “regional catastrophe.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry also warned that U.S. plans to deploy a military unit in Jordan may scuttle peace efforts in neighboring Syria.

Yet Russia is now a potential source of support and information on the Boston Marathon bombing, which authorities say was the work of two brothers. One of the men was born in Russia and the other in Kyrgyzstan, according to two U.S. law enforcement officials who asked for anonymity. Kerry, a former Massachusetts senator, may raise the topic with Lavrov in Brussels.

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