U.S. Pledges $60 Million to Syrian Opposition


kerry 3The United States, stepping up its support for the Syrian opposition, announced on Thursday an additional $60 million in assistance to help the opposition provide basic services in areas it controls. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would also provide food rations and medical supplies to the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the opposition, the first such American aid to the opposition’s military.

Mr. Kerry made the announcement after a meeting with Syrian opposition leaders in Rome. On Wednesday, senior administration officials said that a training mission for the rebels at a base in the region, which is already under way, represented the deepest American involvement yet in the Syrian conflict, though the size and scope of the mission is not clear, nor is its host country. Before arriving in Rome, Mr. Kerry said in Paris that the Syrian opposition needed additional assistance and indicated that the United States and its partners planned to provide some.

One major goal of the administration is to help the opposition build up its credibility within Syria by providing traditional government services to the civilian population. Since the conflict erupted two years ago, the United States has sent $365 million in humanitarian aid to Syrians.

American officials have been increasingly worried that extremist members of the resistance against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, notably the 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.

“Some folks on the ground that we don’t support and whose interests do not align with ours are delivering some of that help,” Mr. Kerry said.

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.

The aid package announced on Thursday is intended to support civilian efforts like sanitation projects, education, and security. Another major goal in providing assistance is to jump-start negotiations over a political transition by sending a message to Mr. Assad that the rebels would ultimately prevail on the ground.

“He needs to know that he can’t shoot his way out of this,” Mr. Kerry said of Mr. Assad. None of the aid the United States has supplied has been sent to the Free Syrian Army fighters, who are doing battle with Mr. Assad. Rather, the distribution of assistance has been limited to local councils and unarmed groups. But this would change if the administration expanded its assistance.

What remains off the table, at least as far as the White House is concerned, are weapons. President Obama last year rejected a proposal by the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and the Pentagon to arm a select cadre of rebels. American officials indicated Wednesday that the White House was still opposed to providing weapons.

Still, one 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 buy weapons.

The comments by Mr. Kerry and allied officials generated considerable expectations for the Thursday meeting, attended by Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, and other coalition members.

Earlier this week, Mr. Khatib had balked at attending the meeting, reflecting the deep disappointment in the Syrian opposition over what it feels is the failure of major powers to help it defeat Mr. Assad. But he relented after a phone call from Mr. Kerry, which was followed up by a call from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Mr. Kerry’s meeting with Mr. Khatib was his first with the Syrian opposition leader. Mr. Kerry said the input from the opposition would enable the administration to assess what steps were needed. The United States is not the only nation that is planning to take the step of sending nonlethal assistance to armed groups. Last week, the European Union agreed to a British proposal that nonlethal equipment could be sent. Britain and other members are currently discussing precisely what sort of equipment would be allowed under the terms of the European decision.

“In the face of such murder and threat of instability, our policy cannot stay static as the weeks go by,” the British foreign secretary, William Hague, said after a meeting with Mr. Kerry in London on Monday. “We must significantly increase support for the Syrian opposition. We are preparing to do just that.” The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, also called for increased support to the opposition after a meeting with Mr. Kerry in Paris on Wednesday, although he did not specify what sort of aid France planned to provide.

“If we want to have a new regime, we have to encourage the opposition,” Mr. Fabius said. “We have to help the situation to move.”

But to some Syrians, the American assistance falls short amid worsening violence. Abou Shadi, a refugee from the Syrian city of Aleppo, said Mr. Assad had to go.

“We want nothing from the international community, neither food nor arms! We want them to topple him,” he said.

NY Times