US will send nonlethal aid directly to Syrian rebels

Secretary of State John Kerry said that some groups the US doesn't support are gaining more influence with the rebels in the absence of greater Western help.

Riccardo De Luca/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) talks to Syrian opposition coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib during an international conference on Syria at Villa Madama, Rome, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013.

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The United States is planning to boost the size and scope of its aid to Syria, a policy shift announced at an international conference on Syria in Rome today.

Aid will remain nonlethal, but for the first time, it will be sent to Free Syrian Army fighters battling the government, reports Reuters. In the past, aid has only gone to unarmed groups and local councils. Secretary of State John Kerry also announced the US government will more than double aid for Syrian civilians, pledging $60 million.

“No nation, no people should live in fear of their so-called leaders,” Mr. Kerry said.

Other European nations are expected to provide further assistance to the opposition, as well, potentially including “defensive military hardware,” reports The Associated Press.

"We want to help the Syrian opposition to better be able to meet the needs of the Syrian people," Kerry said at a news conference in Paris yesterday. "They've had difficulty doing that now. And some folks on the ground that we don't support and whose interests do not align with ours are delivering some of that help."

According to The New York Times, nonlethal aid could possibly go beyond food and medical equipment, including things such as night-vision devices, vehicles, or communications equipment. “[O]ne official said that the financing the United States planned to send to the resistance might indirectly help the rebels arm themselves as it might free up other funds to purchase weapons,” reports the Times.

Today’s meeting in Rome of The Friends of Syria group – made up of the Syrian opposition and 11 foreign powers that support them – comes days before a meeting of the Syrian National Coalition in Turkey. According to Al Jazeera, at the Istanbul meeting the main Syrian opposition group is expected to “elect a prime minister and government to run parts of Syria seized from [President Bashar al-]Assad’s control.”

According to the Times, a primary goal of the US is to support the opposition in strengthening its credibility among the Syrian population. 

Since the conflict erupted two years ago, the United States has provided $365 million in humanitarian aid to Syrians. American officials are increasingly worried that extremist members of the resistance against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, notably the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, which the United States has asserted is affiliated with Al Qaeda, will take control of portions of Syria and cement its authority by providing public services, much as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon….

To blunt the power of extremist groups, the United States wants to help the Syrian Opposition Council, the coalition of Syrian resistance leaders it backs and helped organize, deliver basic services in areas that have been wrested from the control of the Assad government.

A US State Department official said that Washington wanted to help the opposition maintain "the institutions of the state" in areas under their control, reports Al Jazeera.

"We're talking about basic services, water, electricity – but also [to] build up new institutions in terms of governance, rule of law, police," State Department deputy acting spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.

Another potential reason behind the US policy shift in Syria is to send a message to Mr. Assad that rebels have the support and capability to ultimately succeed, providing an impetuous for negotiating a political transition, reports the Times.

“He needs to know that he can’t shoot his way out of this,” Kerry said of Assad.

According to AP:

The U.S. will be sending technical advisers to the Syrian National Coalition offices in Cairo to oversee and help them spend the money for good governance and rule of law. The advisers will be from non-governmental organizations and other groups that do this kind of work.

Attendees at today’s meeting also condemned countries providing weapons and support to Assad, a separate Reuters story reports. Iran is suspected of supplying weapons and military support to the regime, and Russia has openly noted its provisions of military equipment.

“The United States’ decision to take further steps now is the result of the brutality of superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah,” Kerry said.

Earlier this week Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Berlin, raising hopes for the possibility of bringing Assad and rebel groups to a negotiating table, reports The Christian Science Monitor. Russian experts say Russia is making strides in that regard, and that it’s now the US’s duty to convince rebel groups that the best solution is engaging in talks.

"I think it's clear that Russia can deliver the Assad regime on this point, and bring them to the table for talks with the rebels," says Andrei Baklitsky, an expert with the PIR Center, an independent Moscow-based security think tank.

"Russian diplomacy has been pretty consistent on the need for such talks and Moscow is ready to do its part. But I would think it's the US that has a problem here. If Washington is going to change its approach, and come out in favor of negotiations, it may find itself unable to bring the rebels to the table. The Syrian rebels are very fragmented, have little common ground, and some of them are completely intransigent. Some of them didn't even want to go to Rome, to sit down with their friends, much less engage in talks with the Assad regime," he says.

According to the United Nations, an estimated 70,000 people have died in the two-year Syrian conflict. In addition, UN official António Guterres said the UN refugee agency has registered 936,000 Syrians across the Middle East and North Africa, which is almost 30 times as many people as registered in April last year, reports Al Jazeera. The number of refugees is expected to exceed 1 million within a month.

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