President Obama has ramped up U.S. aid, including communications equipment and medical supplies, to Syria’s opposition in hopes of accelerating the downfall of President Bashar Assad, officials said Friday.
The president signed off on the package last week, U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. They would not outline all forms of American assistance because of the danger anti-Assad protesters have faced over the past year.
After a year of violence in Syria, a tenuous truce has taken hold this week. Tens of thousands of Syrians protested against the government on Friday. Security forces used live fire, tear gas and beat some protesters, but there was no immediate sign of wide-scale shelling or sniper attacks.
Obama spoke about potential aid options last month during a lengthy private meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in South Korea. Officials said at the time that Washington and its allies were considering providing Syrian rebels with communication, medical and other “nonlethal” aid.
They’ve declined to outline publicly what might be encompassed by nonlethal aid. That could include clothing, bullet-proof vests, radios, night vision goggles or other objects Washington provided last year to Libyan rebels as they fought a civil war to overthrow dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But officials stressed the majority of the aid was medical and communications supplies.
The U.S. officials said the package Obama approved will be given to Syria’s “nonviolent, political opposition” and not to armed rebels. It was unclear whether any monitoring will take place.
Washington had been providing satellite phones, SIM cards and other such equipment already, officials acknowledged, but said the level of assistance will now be increased. No figures for the value of the assistance were immediately available.
The administration views the aid as critical to supporting the U.S. policy to “hasten Assad’s fall and push forward with a stable and democratic transition,” an official said.
The U.S. and its partners have been trying to help the opposition organize itself and maintain better communications with members outside the country, so that they can coalesce around a common post-Assad vision for Syria. Radio assistance and the like also could help opposition members evade Syrian government regime attacks.
The Obama administration believes the Syrian government, with Iran’s help, is actively jamming private communications and satellite Arabic television networks in an aggressive campaign to cut off anti-government organizers from the outside.
Meanwhile, an advance team of about a dozen U.N. observers is ready to enter Syria, where a cease-fire has been “relatively respected” despite government troops and heavy weapons still in cities and continuing abuses, the spokesman for international envoy Kofi Annan said Friday.
The advance team is “standing by to board planes and to get themselves on the ground as soon as possible” once the U.N. Security Council approves the mission, Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi told a news conference.
France’s U.N. Mission said on Twitter that Britain, the U.S., France, Germany, Portugal, Colombia and Morocco submitted a revised draft resolution early Friday afternoon and were expecting a vote later in the day.
Deputy ambassadors met behind closed doors earlier in the day to consider a draft that had been sent to capitals overnight for scrutiny. Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters the text was longer and more complicated than he expected — and more negotiations would be needed — but he said his government also wanted to act quickly to get observers on the ground.
The truce, which formally took effect Thursday, is at the center of Annan’s six-point plan to stop Syria’s crackdown on a popular uprising and launch talks on its political future. The uprising in the Arab country began in March 2011 with peaceful protests but has become increasingly militarized in response to the crackdown by President Bashar Assad’s regime. The fighting has killed an estimated 9,000 people.
In the first major test of the U.N.-brokered truce, thousands of Syrians poured into the streets Friday for anti-government protests, activists said. Security forces responded by firing in the air and beating some protesters, but there was no immediate sign of widespread shelling, sniper attacks or other potential violations of the cease-fire.
“We hope both sides will sustain this calm, this relative calm,” Fawzi said. “We are thankful that there’s no heavy shelling, that the number of casualties are dropping, that the number of refugees who are crossing the borders are also dropping.”
Annan has asked the 15-nation Security Council to approve sending a U.N. observer mission to Syria as soon as possible. The council’s draft resolution would authorize an advance element of up to 30 unarmed military observers.
It demands that the Syrian government ensure unimpeded freedom of movement for the observers and the ability to interview anyone they want in private. It also would require that Syrian troops and heavy weapons — which have remained in cities and towns contrary to the government’s promises — are withdrawn to their barracks. The resolution would also reiterate a call for unimpeded access for humanitarian workers.
The original draft describes the council as determined to consider “further measures” — which could include sanctions that Syria’s allies Russia and China have opposed — if Syria does not follow through on its commitments. Diplomats said this language has since been weakened.
Fawzi said the Syrian government agreed to the deployment of a U.N. observer mission when it committed to Annan’s peace plan. If the council eventually approves an observer mission, Fawzi said an advance team of “around 10 or 12” observers, that could quickly be ratcheted up to 30, would deploy immediately to prepare the way for a full mission. Additional Security Council approval would be required, he said, to put up to 250 observers on the ground.
Troops already in the region from Asian, African and South American countries acceptable to Assad’s regime could be used for the mission, Fawzi said.
Fawzi quoted Annan as telling the council during a closed-door briefing Thursday that “the continued presence of Syrian armed forces, including armor, in and around population centers, must end immediately. Violence in all its forms, including arbitrary arrests, torture and abductions, must stop.”
Annan’s plan also calls for Syria to ensure freedom of movement for journalists. Fawzi said Syria’s government provided Annan with a list of 53 journalists who have been given visas to enter the country. Annan got a letter days earlier, Fawzi said, listing 21 organizations with entry visas.
Fawzi insisted that the truce is a first step on a long road to peace.
“This is only the beginning of a long road toward reconciling and toward building the future that Syrians aspire to, where there are no detentions without cause, where law enforcement guarantees peace and security in the street — not the military,” he said.
Clashes between Syrian troops and opponents are “not unusual,” he said. “Sometimes, in situations like this, the parties test each other.”
AP/ USA Today