US vows to provide direct non-military aid to Syrian rebels


Sat, Mar 02, 2013 - Page 7

The US has announced it will provide direct aid to Syrian rebels, but not the arms they had hoped for, as well as US$60 million in extra assistance to the political opposition.

After talks with European and Arab partners and the opposition National Coalition in Rome, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that the US would provide aid to the fighters in the form of food and medical assistance.

The move is a significant shift in US policy, but falls short of rebel demands for Western backers to supply the rebellion with weapons or non-offensive military equipment, such as vehicles and body armor.

Syrian National Coalition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, standing beside Kerry as he made the announcement, expressed disappointment, suggesting the West was overly focused on the presence of Islamists among rebels.

He also complained about weapons continuing to reach the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Kerry said that the goal is to give the opposition the means to control areas it has seized from the regime, to prove to al-Assad he cannot “shoot his way out” of the conflict.

Al-Khatib complained that “a lot of people, particularly the media, pay more attention to the length of fighters’ beards [an allusion to jihadists in Syria] than to the shedding of children’s blood and regime bombardments.”

“Indications are that there has been an international decision not to arm the Syria resistance with high-caliber weapons. If that is what you want, then stop providing the regime with these types of weapons, which continue to arrive under the pretext of honoring existing contracts,” al-Khatib said.

However, some analysts said that the US’ tepid response is creating the kind of vacuum in which jihadi groups can flourish and it may damage US hopes of gaining long-term sway with whatever post-Assad government emerges.

“It took seven months to get to the biscuits and Band-Aid,” said US-based Brookings Doha Center director Salman Shaikh, referring to the lengthy negotiations to reach what has been billed as a major shift in US policy.

“This kind of support is not going to have a great impact with regard to the situation on the ground,” he stressed, saying what was needed was to “lay the ground work for the military balance to shift inside Syria.”