WASHINGTON/PARIS – The White House is moving toward a major policy shift on Syria that could provide the rebels with equipment such as body armor, armored vehicles and possible military training and could send humanitarian assistance directly to Syria’s opposition political coalition, according to U.S. and European officials.
The White House has not provided direct aid to either the military or political side of the opposition throughout the 2-year-old Syrian conflict, and U.S. officials remain opposed to providing weapons to the rebels.
Elements of the proposed policy, which officials cautioned have not yet been finalized, are being discussed by Secretary of State John Kerry in meetings this week and next with allies in Europe and the Middle East as part of a coordinated effort to end the bloody stalemate that has claimed 70,000 lives.
The outcome of those talks, and a nearly two-hour meeting in Berlin on Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and a Thursday conference with allies and leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Rome, is expected to weigh heavily in administration deliberations.
Kerry has made repeated indirect references to a policy shift during his travels. He told a group of German students Tuesday that while the United States wants a “peaceful resolution” in Syria, if its leaders refuse to negotiate and continue to kill citizens, “then you need to at least provide some kind of support” for those fighting for their rights.
On Monday in London, he said: “We are not coming to Rome simply to talk. We’re coming . . . to make decisions about next steps.”
Opposition political leaders had threatened to boycott the Rome meeting, but they were persuaded to attend after telephone calls in which Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden said substantive proposals would be on the table.
The pending shift to a more active role comes as the administration and its partners backing the opposition, including Britain, France and countries in the region, have concluded that there is little immediate chance for a negotiated political settlement to the conflict with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Western officials have also acknowledged that the opposition coalition is unlikely to quickly develop a governing infrastructure and attract significant support from fence-sitting Syrian minorities and Assad supporters.
The opposition, meantime, has been strident in its criticism of the United States and others for refusing to provide it with the resources to organize a quasi-government and broaden its support inside Syria.
The Obama administration, citing legal restrictions on direct funding of the opposition, has funneled $385 million in humanitarian aid through international institutions and nongovernmental organizations, most of which operate under Syrian government supervision.
On the military side, the administration has established direct contact with rebel leaders, but has limited aid to communications equipment delivered indirectly. A push last summer to arm the rebels, backed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, then-CIA director David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, was rejected by the White House in favor of continued efforts to build the political opposition.
While antigovernment fighters have made significant gains against Assad’s military, concern has grown that militants linked to al-Qaida have begun to dominate the opposition force.
Britain and France have pushed to lift an EU arms embargo on Syria. At a meeting in Brussels last week, political representatives of some of the EU’s 27 members refused to lift the yearlong embargo entirely when it expires this Friday. Instead, they renewed it for three months and agreed to reconsider in May.
More importantly, according to several European officials, the EU inserted a new clause that allows member countries “to provide greater nonlethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians.”
Finalization of the new provision is to be announced Thursday as Kerry and representatives of other governments meet with the opposition coalition in Rome, said officials close to the deliberations.
Although a number of countries opposed the change, it was favored by Britain, France, Germany and Italy, according to a European official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss rapidly evolving policies.
“Under the old EU setup, we couldn’t do anything,” a senior European official said. The new rule will allow “things that don’t of themselves kill people,” including night-vision equipment, armored vehicles and military training.
Another European official said, “We’re talking about things that can be helpful on the ground — bulletproof jackets, binoculars, and communications.”
Each country participating in the effort is expected to decide for itself what equipment it will supply. The European officials said they have been in close contact with the White House about its own intentions and have been told that discussions are ongoing.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said that the deteriorating conditions in Syria, especially recent scud missile attacks on the city of Aleppo, were unacceptable and that the West’s current position could not be sustained while an “appalling injustice” is being done to Syrian citizens.
Asked Tuesday about prospects for expanding U.S. military support for the rebels, Kerry said he would not speculate on the possible outcome of the meeting with opposition leaders.
“We’re going to Rome to bring a group of nations together precisely to talk about this problem,” Kerry said. “I don’t want to get ahead of that meeting or ability to begin to think about exactly what will be a part of it.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Kerry and Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, spent the bulk of their meeting discussing Syria. Lavrov met in Moscow on Monday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, who said that the Assad government is willing to talk with armed opponents, while continuing its fight “against terrorism.”
Opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib deflected a Russian offer to visit Moscow, amid disagreements within the coalition.
Lavrov called his meeting with Kerry “constructive” and told reporters that they agreed to do everything in their power “to create the best conditions to facilitate the soonest possible start of a dialogue between the government and the opposition,” Reuters reported.
He said Russia wants the opposition to name representatives for talks with the government, and blamed “extremists” in the opposition coalition for stopping progress toward negotiations.