U.S. to Double 'Non-Lethal Aid' to Syria's Opposition
The United States said on Saturday it would double its aid to Syria's opposition, including with new non-lethal military equipment, but paid no heed to calls for arms supplies or a direct intervention, AFP reports.
In a statement after talks among the pro-opposition "Friends of Syria" group in Istanbul, Secretary of State John Kerry said U.S. assistance to the opposition would double to $250 million.
Some of the money will be used to "provide an expanded range of support" to rebel fighters battling President Bashar al-Assad, beyond the current provisions of food rations and medical kits, "to include other types of non-lethal supplies," the statement said, according to AFP.
It did not elaborate, but U.S. media reported that Washington is preparing to provide the rebels with protective battlefield equipment such as body armor, armored vehicles and night-vision goggles, as well as communications gear.
"The president directed me to step up our efforts," Kerry told a news conference.
"The stakes in Syria couldn't be more clear: chemical weapons, the slaughter of people by ballistic missiles and other weapons of huge destruction, the potential of a whole country," he said.
"This bloodshed needs to stop."
The pledge fell short of opposition demands for foreign backers to supply the rebels with arms, institute a no-fly zone and carry out airstrikes on positions used by the Assad regime to launch missiles.
Many in the West have raised concerns about arming the rebels, fearing weapons could end up in the hands of radical Islamist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, which this month pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
Western diplomats have said increased military support will hinge on the opposition showing it can be more inclusive and that it could ensure weapons would be secure. They would also have to reject the use of chemical weapons and guarantee respect for human rights.
The head of the main opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, offered reassurances after the talks.
"Our revolution is for the entire Syrian people. We are not supporting one group at the price of another and we shall never allow that to happen," he told the news conference, according to AFP.
The Coalition said in a separate statement that the opposition rejected "all forms of terrorism and any extremist ideology" and promised that "weapons will not fall in the wrong hands."
The opposition had also voiced frustration earlier at the lack of a strong international response.
"Assad is firing missiles against densely populated areas... without consequences," said Yaser Tabbara, a spokesman for the opposition's interim prime minister Ghassan Hitto.
"Throwing money at the problem won't solve it."
Washington has been gradually shifting its policy on providing assistance to the opposition, with Kerry announcing at the last Friends of Syria meeting in February that the U.S. would start providing direct non-lethal aid to rebel fighters.
Britain and France had been pushing for a European Union arms embargo to be allowed to expire by the end of May. Paris has since appeared more wary about arms supplies since the Al-Qaeda pledge from Al-Nusra.
Supporters of arms supplies have said the rise of Islamist groups such as Al-Nusra is only a stronger argument for providing weapons to more moderate voices in the Syrian opposition.