At a meeting of the Friends of Syria in Rome on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Washington will pledge $60 million in “non-lethal supplies” to Syrian opposition forces. The meeting was also attended by the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, who had originally planned to boycott the conference but told reporters on Monday that he had reversed his decision and would go to Rome.
Kerry's announcement marked a shift in the United States' policy of nonintervention in the Syrian conflict, but it was still a disappointment for Syrian opposition leaders, who have been requesting military aid from the West since nearly the beginning of the civil war two years ago, Reuters reported.
The rebels, who are requesting the latest in U.S. anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, are instead getting U.S. Army rations and medical supplies. CBS reported that the U.S. will also send technical advisers to the Syrian National Coalition in Cairo to help spend the aid on “good governance and rule of law.”
The U.S. will not provide bullet-proof vests, armored vehicles or military training, as the Syrians had also requested. Further details on what, exactly, Washington will send were not immediately forthcoming, either from the press conference in Rome or from the Department of State.
Some U.S. lawmakers are jostling for a full about-face in its Syria policy. Speaking at the Washington Institute on Wednesday after returning from an official visit to the Middle East the previous week, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said that opposition forces in Syria were feeling great frustration due to the lack of Western support. “There is resentment building among the Syrian opposition that the West, and the U.S., in particular, has abandoned them,” Rubio said. “They rise up to exercise their freedom and fight for principles we say we’re founded on, and we do nothing to support them. They feel anger.”
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The U.S. has provided $385 million so far in humanitarian aid to various programs through the U.N. and $54 million in communications equipment, the state department said earlier in February. But Rubio, who many consider to be a viable candidate to run for president on the Republican ticket in 2016, claimed that arms still flood into Syria, mostly from the Gulf countries.
“What the opposition really needs is access to ammunition,” Rubio said. “That’s a step that I’m prepared to advocate for -- the provision of ammunition to resistance groups with whom we could build long-term dialogue.”
One option the U.S. has is to follow the Libya route. During the Libyan civil war, which is often compared to the Syrian conflict, the U.S. supplied the Libyan resistance with $25 million in non-lethal aid. That package consisted of “surplus American goods to help protect civilians,” including medical supplies, uniforms, boots, tents, vehicles, fuel trucks and fuel bladders, ambulances, personal protective gear, binoculars, non-secure radios and Halal meals, the Washington Times and Fox News reported at the time. The news of the United State’s contribution to Libya was met with similar groans of frustration from the Libyan rebels, who had, like their Syrian counterparts today, been hoping for something with a little more bang.
The New York Times later revealed that U.S. President Barack Obama had secretly approved arms shipments to Libya, and those arms ended up in the hands of Islamist militants. One of Washington’s major fears about arming Syrian rebels would be that the weapons might end up with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Of course, the West did intervene in Libya, after the U.S. pressured the U.N. to authorize a Western military intervention, and the U.S. established a no-fly zone over Libya, allowing NATO to perform a series of airstrikes against pro-Moammar Gadhafi forces.
Establishing a no-fly zone over Syria has been debated, and Turkey, in particular, has been pushing the idea after its southern region suffered deaths and damage from Syrian shells.
UPDATE, 3:30 pm: The State Department released the following specifications as to what the U.S. will be giving the Syrian opposition:
"This money will be used particularly 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," a State Department official told reporters at the Vatican on Thursday.