More Western assistance for Syria’s rebels is in the works, according to Secretary of State John Kerry and the leaders he is meeting with at the outset of his nine-country trip through Europe and the Middle East.
The crucial question for Syria’s opposition forces is whether that stepped-up aid would include arms for fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The answer could come Thursday, when Secretary Kerry and other Western officials are to gather in Rome for a meeting with at least some of Syria’s divided opposition groups.
The Obama administration is coming under increasing pressure at home – from Republicans and some Democrats – to reverse course and directly arm the rebels. So far the administration has provided only “nonlethal” assistance, arguing that some of the rebel groups are aligned with Al Qaeda or other groups unfriendly to the United States.
But on Monday in London – the first stop of his maiden overseas trip as President Obama’s top diplomat – Kerry said, “The moment is ripe for us to be considering what more we can do.” He added, “We are not coming to Rome simply to talk [but] to talk about next steps.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also offered a tantalizing preview of the Rome meeting, saying, “We must significantly increase support for the Syrian opposition, [and] we are preparing to do just that.”
The two diplomats’ hints appeared aimed at enticing a broad representation of Syria’s opposition organizations to attend the Rome meeting, being held by the Friends of Syria group of nations. On Saturday, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the largest part of Syria’s political opposition, announced that it was “suspending” its participation in the Rome meeting over what it called the “shameful” international inaction in the face of the Assad regime’s continuing attacks on the Syrian population.
In particular, the SNC cited last week’s bombing in Aleppo that killed dozens and that the opposition said was the result of a government Scud missile attack. The government blamed Al Qaeda-linked insurgents.
In London, Kerry offered a reminder that in his previous role as a US senator, he called on Mr. Obama to consider military aid to the rebels. That put Kerry in line with his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of whom last year encouraged Obama to drop his opposition to arming the rebels.
Kerry said that as a member of the Senate, “I was one of those voices on the outside pushing for one thing or another.” Last May, Kerry called for creation of safe zones in Syria and for arming the rebels on the condition that the opposition become more united.
But in his comments in London, Kerry also suggested that some crucial decisions on aiding Syria rebels and what he calls “changing Assad’s calculus” are not likely to come until sometime after the Rome meeting.
He insisted that the Syrian opposition “is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is coming from,” but he also acknowledged that some proposal for assistance “may take a little more of a gestation period.”
One factor figuring in Kerry’s deliberations is the meeting he will hold in Berlin Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose government remains Mr. Assad’s firmest ally. It will be Kerry’s first meeting as secretary of State with his Russian counterpart, so it is unlikely that the two will be able to reach some kind of breakthrough on bringing the US and Russian approaches to Syria closer together, some regional analysts say.
The Kerry-Lavrov meeting “is going to be helpful in clearing the fog between the two sides, [but] I don’t think anything major is going to happen there,” says Michael Geary, a transatlantic-relations specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. It’s likely to take a “separate Kerry trip to Russia” or even a “serious sit-down” between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin for any progress toward a political solution, he says.
Kerry’s words at the Rome meeting may offer a clue as to whether Obama is shifting in his opposition to providing direct “lethal assistance” to the rebels.
In the meantime, some forces in the president’s party are showing signs of impatience with the Syria policy status quo. On Sunday, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel of New York, called on Obama to change course and provide American arms to the rebels.
Rejecting the administration’s justification for not arming the rebels, Representative Engel told ABC’s “This Week,” “We know who they are, and I think it’s time we make that move.”