Kerry: U.S. must help counter aid to Syria opposition from extremists


US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) speaks on Feb. 27, 2013 to members of the US Embassy in Paris. Kerry began on February 24 a marathon tour of allies in Europe and the Middle East. (JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
February 27, 2013

The United States and several other nations want to increase support for Syrian rebels, partly to help political moderates counter the increasingly well-organized network of humanitarian and political services being offered by extremists, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday.

The United States is one of about a dozen nations preparing a package of broader financial and practical support for the rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Kerry and other diplomats will frame the new help during meetings with Syrian political opposition leaders Thursday in Rome. The additional aid is expected to stop short of the weapons the rebels have long sought from Western backers.

“We all agree that the time has passed for President Assad to heed the voice of his people and the voice of the people in the world who want a peaceful transition and a new opportunity for Syria,” Kerry said after meetings with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

“That’s why we are examining and developing ways to accelerate the political transition that the Syrian people seek and deserve.”

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the new aid could include equipment such as body armor and armored vehicles, and possibly military training, as well as humanitarian assistance sent to Syria’s opposition political coalition.

Kerry did not give details of the offers but said the goal for international opponents of Assad is twofold. Syria’s opposition leaders will provide advice on how to speed an end to the fighting and a move toward a political settlement, Kerry said.

Secondly, the United States and others want to help the Syrian Opposition Coalition better meet the needs of civilians, Kerry said, a reference to the absence of basic government and humanitarian services in many rebel-held areas of the country. The void has been filled in some places by the al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group the United States calls a terrorist organization.

“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,” Kerry said.

“We need to help them to be able to deliver basic services and to protect the legitimate institutions of the state,” he added. “You have a vulnerable population today that needs to be able to resist the pleas to engage in extremism.”

Assad, who retains the loyalty of a powerful segment of the military, has shown little sign he is ready to bargain with the rebels. Despite the rebel capture of significant territory and large caches of military weapons, the war is largely stalemated.

The United States has refused to provide weapons, arguing they could too easily fall into extremist hands. The European Union also forbids the provision of weapons, but Britain and other nations are considering offerings that border on armament.

The larger goal of outside help to the rebels requires convincing Assad that a rebel victory is inevitable and that he should cut a deal to save himself.

For the first time, the Obama administration is said to be considering providing direct aid to rebels in Syria, a move that would increase pressure on President Bashar Assad to step down.

“He needs to know that he can’t shoot his way out of this,” Kerry said. “We need to convince him of that, and I think the opposition needs more help in order to be able to do that.”

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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