“The totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals,” Kerry said. He promised to take other rebel requests to Washington for further discussion.
The Obama administration and its leading European allies, including Britain and France, have sought to coordinate their assistance to the rebels, and Kerry will now head to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to try to ensure that all countries providing aid are working from the same game plan. The Saudis have taken the lead in sending weapons to opposition fighters.
Like the rebels themselves, Saudi Arabia would prefer that the United States move toward a military intervention. Although U.S. officials indicated additional aid would be forthcoming, the administration is still opposed to sending weapons or using its aircraft to stop Assad’s air bombardments. Discussions are ongoing in Washington to determine how much further the administration is willing to go, including expansion of a minimal military training program.
In a tweet following the Rome meeting, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain will “be announcing new assistance.”
Britain and France have been awaiting an easing of a European Union arms embargo on Syria that will go into effect Friday. The new terms allow individual E.U. members to provide “non-lethal and technical assistance to protect Syrian civilians.” Each member country is left to decide what form its aid will take.
British and French officials have indicated that their support of the rebel forces might also include training, coordinated with allies and conducted outside Syria.
Another opposition figure, Adib Shishakly, who is in charge of coordinating humanitarian assistance for the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, cautiously welcomed the U.S. announcement.
“We expected more, but hopefully this is a positive start,” he said, speaking from the coalition’s headquarters in Cairo. However, he added, the opposition is “absolutely disappointed” that the United States is not offering military assistance to the Free Syrian Army at a time when the Syrian government is escalating its use of force to include ballistic missiles as well as airstrikes.
“They’re not doing anything about the Scuds,” Shishakly said, referring to the Syrian military’s increasing use of Russian-designed missiles. “And if they are not going to do anything about it, at least give us the tools to protect ourselves.”
Rebels and analysts said the real significance of the aid is that a portion will go directly to the Free Syrian Army’s military councils, opening a formal channel between the U.S. government and the rebels for the first time.
The councils were formed at the prodding of U.S. officials last year in an effort to make the ad hoc rebel army more effective by giving it a more coherent structure. But the councils have had limited success in coordinating the hundreds of rebel groups that have emerged to join the fight, among them some of the increasingly powerful Islamist groups that have chosen not to join the councils.
A spokesman for the Damascus Military Council who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Qatada said he was deeply disappointed that the assistance package did not include arms.
“We thank the American government for the aid,” he said in an interview over Skype. “However, we would like to point out that we do not need food at the moment. We would rather have weapons to defend ourselves and our children.”
If the assistance is intended to increase U.S. influence over the chaotic events unfolding on the battlefield, “it will need a lot more than this,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “The trajectory of the conflict is much more dangerous than that, and these kind of Band-Aids are not going to have a major impact on the ground.”
DeYoung reported from Washington. Liz Sly and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut and Anthony Faiola in London contributed to this report.