Feb. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. will for the first time provide support to Syrian rebel fighters, a step that increases U.S. involvement in the two-year-old war to oust President Bashar al-Assad, Secretary of State John Kerry said today.
The U.S., in its first official contact with the Free Syrian Army, plans to provide it with non-lethal aid such as medical equipment and ready-to-eat meals, and give the political opposition $60 million, Kerry said in Rome. The move reflects a U.S. decision to intensify its involvement in Syria’s civil war, which threatens to destabilize Jordan, strengthen Sunni radicals in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia and threaten Israel.
“No nation, no people should live in fear of their so- called leaders,” said Kerry, who is on his first trip through Europe and the Middle East as the chief U.S. diplomat. There’s international “revulsion” over the Assad regime, he said.
Syrian rebels have been trying to force Assad from power since March 2011. The conflict has killed about 70,000 people and created almost 1 million refugees.
While the U.S. and the European Union will not supply rebel fighters with weapons, European officials are discussing an increase in non-lethal military aid, including military vehicles, body armor and night-vision equipment. The move is driven by concern that extremists are gaining influence in areas that have fallen out of Syrian government control and a desire to strengthen the democratic opposition.
The efforts come on top of more than $50 million in non- lethal aid to help activists organize across the country, including the provision of equipment like radios. The U.S. also continues to provide $385 million in humanitarian assistance to help internally displaced Syrians and refugees in neighboring countries.
Aid to the Syrian fighters will be carefully vetted, a U.S. official said. It comes in addition to $60 million for the Syrian Opposition Coalition. That aid is meant, in part, to strengthen the political group and raise its credibility, said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
The aid will be used to enable the SOC to help local councils and communities in liberated areas of Syria expand the delivery of basic goods and essential services and to fulfill administrative functions, including security, sanitation and educational services, the official said.
The rebels have received weapons from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to supplement those taken from captured Syrian government bases.
Fear that arms may end up in the hands of radical Islamists has kept the U.S. from taking a similar step, and U.S. officials still rule out supplying weapons to the rebels.
Extremists have made inroads nonetheless. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Feb. 22 that U.S. officials are seeing reports of violence between locals and the Sunni extremist al-Nusra Front, as the militants try to impose a foreign imam or strict interpretations of Islamic law in areas now under their control.
U.S. intelligence agencies have identified several rebel groups that favor replacing the Assad regime with a broad coalition of opposition factions until democratic elections could be held, according to U.S. intelligence officials who asked not to be identified discussing intelligence matters.