“The stakes are really high, and we can’t risk letting this country — in the heart of the Middle East — be destroyed by vicious autocrats or hijacked by the extremists,” Kerry said after discussions among opposition leaders and a group of Western and Arab nations that are funding, and in some cases arming, the fighters.
The military supplies are to be funneled through the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the rebel political organization, to “vetted individuals, vetted units,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity before Kerry’s public statement. Britain, France and other opposition supporters are expected to announce shipments of non-lethal military aid — including night-vision equipment and body armor — to the rebels over the next week.
Kerry also announced that the United States would provide $60 million in humanitarian assistance to the coalition to provide basic services and help build governing institutions for civilians in parts of Syria under rebel control.
In both cases, the aid is intended to bolster moderate forces that the United States and its allies think have lost ground to Islamist extremists in battles against President Bashar al-Assad’s military and in the provision of services to civilians. The administration remains unwilling to provide the rebels with weapons or to intervene with U.S. military forces.
Kerry called the provision of aid directly through the opposition “a significant stepping-up of the policy.” The United States has previously provided $50 million in indirect communication supplies to the opposition, and $385 million to nongovernmental aid organizations providing humanitarian relief to Syrian refugees and people displaced inside the country during the nearly two-year-old conflict.
Standing with Kerry in an appearance before reporters, the leader of the political opposition had no words of thanks for an offer that still represents a hedge of the U.S. bet on the group it helped to form last year.
Syrian Opposition Coalition chairman Mouaz al-Khatib angrily appealed for help in establishing a humanitarian corridor to the besieged city of Homs and said the rebels are tired of Western complaints about extremists in their ranks. He argued that the real enemy is the Assad regime but said too many outsiders are worried only about “the length of a beard of a fighter.”
“No terrorists in the world have such a savage nature as those in the regime,” Khatib said in Arabic.
Khatib’s finger-jabbing anger was in marked contrast to Kerry’s clipped and measured tone. Kerry looked at Khatib without expression as the Syrian spoke.