ROME — The Obama administration will provide food and medicine to Syrian rebel fighters, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday, opening the first channel of U.S. aid to the opposition military.
The cautious foray into front-line battlefield support fell far short of the heavy weaponry and high-tech gear the rebels seek. But Kerry said he would take additional opposition requests “back to Washington for further consideration.”
“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.
Kerry also extended an invitation to Khatib to visit Washington. Although a date has not been set, an administration official there said that “it’s safe to say we’ll be looking for ways when he’s here to show additional support . . . at that time.”
The rebels have captured significant territory and large caches of military weapons, but the conflict that has killed about 70,000 people remains mostly a stalemate.
After a week of consultations with European allies before the Rome meeting, Kerry will now head to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to try to ensure that all countries backing the Syrian rebels are working from the same game plan. The Saudis have taken the lead in sending weapons to opposition fighters.
Another opposition figure, Adib Shishakly, who is in charge of coordinating humanitarian assistance for the coalition, cautiously welcomed the U.S. announcement.
“We expected more, but hopefully this is a positive start,” he said, speaking from the group’s headquarters in Cairo. However, he added, the opposition is “absolutely disappointed” that the United States is not offering military assistance.
“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 significance of the aid is that the food and medical supplies will go to the Free Syrian Army’s military councils, formed at the prodding of U.S. officials last year in an effort to give the ad hoc rebel army more structure. But the councils have had limited success in coordinating the hundreds of rebel groups, among them some of the increasingly powerful Islamist groups that have chosen not to join the councils.
A Damascus Military Council spokesman who uses 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.”
DeYoung reported from Washington. Liz Sly and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut and Anthony Faiola in London contributed to this report.