ROME – Secretary of State John Kerry announced here today that the United States is preparing to provide $60 million to the Syrian opposition in an effort to help strengthen those trying to oust Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.
The funds will not be used to arm the fighters, which would have been a more aggressive step that some had hoped the US would take to convince Assad to step down. Instead, the US financial support will mostly be used to allow Syrian opposition leaders to provide security, sanitation, and educational services in areas that they now control.
“Assad cannot shoot his way out of this,” Kerry said here, standing next to Moaz al Khatib, the head if the Syrian Opposition Coalition. “And as he deludes himself on a military solution, (we) make a different choice. Our choice is a political solution.”
“This is a complicated challenge,” he added. “But the principle that guides this challenge is very simple: No nation, no people should live in fear of their so-called leaders.”
The agreement was the centerpiece of his nine-country tour, and was announced at a villa sitting on a hill above Rome following Kerry’s first meeting with Khatib.
In the weeks since taking office, Kerry has said that he has new strategies for ousting Assad – a man he once viewed as a potential reformer – but Kerry had not outlined what those options would entail.
The United States will be sending technical advisers to Cairo to help administer the aid, according to a senior state department official. The $60 million comes on top of more than $50 million that the US has already provided to help Syrian activists organize.
The funding could be used to set up and buy radios for an interim police force, rebuild schools, or hire teachers and buy books.
Kerry and senior officials from 11 countries most active in calling for Assad to leave said in a joint statement released by the Italian foreign ministry that they had agreed in Rome on ‘‘the need to change the balance of power on the ground.’’ It said the countries represented ‘‘will coordinate their efforts closely so as to best empower the Syrian people and support the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army in its efforts to help them exercise self-defense.’’
Britain and France, two countries that Kerry visited before Italy on his first official trip as secretary of state, have signaled that they want to begin supplying the rebels with defensive military equipment such as combat body armor, armored vehicles, night vision goggles and training. They are expected to make decisions on those items in the near future in line with new guidance from the European Union, which still bars the provision of weapons and ammunition to anyone in Syria.
‘‘We must go above and beyond the efforts we are making now,’’ said Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi, who hosted the conference. ‘‘We can no longer allow this massacre to continue.’’
Appearing beside Terzi and Kerry, the leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, delivered a forceful and emotional demand for Assad to stop the brutality of his forces that have in recent days launched scud missile attacks on the city of Aleppo that have been roundly condemned by much of the Western and Arab worlds
‘‘Bashar Assad, for once in your life, behave as a human being,’’ Khatib said. ‘‘Bashar Assad, you have to make at least one wise decision in your life for the future of your country.’’
The opposition has been appealing for some time for the international community to boost its support and to provide its military wing with lethal assistance, and while al-Khatib did not mention those requests, he pointedly made no reference to the new assistance that Kerry announced. Instead, he urged outside nations to support the creation of protected humanitarian corridors inside Syria, which the foreign ministers said they had ‘‘positively considered’’ by made no decisions.
Kerry defended the limited US assistance, saying it was just part of what was being offered and that other countries would fill in any gaps. He said he was confident that the ‘‘totality’’ of the aid should be enough to prod Assad to start changing his calculations on remaining in power.
‘‘We’re doing this, but other countries are doing other things,’’ he replied, without going into specifics. ‘‘I am confident the totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals.’’ Kerry said Thursday’s meeting in Rome marked the ‘‘beginning of a process that will in fact change his (Assad's) calculation.’’
Washington has already provided $385 million in humanitarian aid to Syria’s war-weary population and $54 million in communications equipment, medical supplies and other nonlethal assistance to Syria’s political opposition. The U.S. also has screened rebel groups for Turkey and American allies in the Arab world that have armed rebel fighters.
But until now, no US dollars or provisions have gone directly to rebel fighters, reflecting concerns about forces that have allied themselves with more radical Islamic elements since Assad’s initial crackdown on peaceful protesters in March 2011.