ROME — Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Thursday that the United States is preparing to provide $60 million to Syrian opposition groups trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The funds will not be used to arm the fighters, which some rebel groups and some US lawmakers had sought. Instead, the financial support will mostly be used to help opposition leaders provide basic security, sanitation, and educational services in areas they now control.
“Assad cannot shoot his way out of this,” Kerry said, standing next to Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition. “And as he deludes himself in pursuit of the 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 Kerry’s nine-country tour of Europe and the Middle East, and it was announced at a villa on a hill above Rome following Kerry’s first meeting with Khatib. Most of Kerry’s diplomatic energy has been spent trying to marshal together countries and find a way to offer a coordinated response to the Syrian conflict.
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 he not outlined what those options would entail.
Published reports had hinted of the pending change in US policy toward the opposition groups, but Kerry’s announcement was the first detailing of the shift.
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 United States had provided to help Syrian activists organize. The United States also had provided $385 million in humanitarian aid, both in Syria and to help refugees in neighboring countries.
The new funding could be used for such things as buying radios and establishing an interim police forces; rebuilding schools; or hiring teachers and buying books.
The United States is also beginning to work with the Supreme Military Council, the rebel army, and will provide military rations and medical supplies.
After Kerry spoke, Khatib launched into an impassioned plea for international support and an entreaty to Assad to “start behaving like a human being.”
“The mass media pay more attention to the length of the beard of a fighter than the massacres,” he said to a room packed with television cameras, referring to reports that Islamic militants had assumed some rebel operations. “Days ago, the blood of children was actually kneaded into the dough with which the bread was made after the massacre.”
Just as the event ended, an Italian peace activist rose in protest. “You are killing everywhere. Drones. Everything,” she shouted toward Kerry, who did not respond.
It is uncertain whether any of the moves that Kerry announced will change Assad’s calculation. Kerry’s hope is that the funding will improve the lives of average Syrians, making them turn against Assad.
He also worries that if the United States isn’t providing the assistance, extremist groups will do it instead.
But even while the move marks the deepest American involvement in the Syrian conflict, the process could take months or years at a time when civilians are being killed daily.
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has long been critical of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, was quoted in The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, as saying the aid was too modest to end the brutal war. “... here we are 23 months into it, 70,000 dead, so it’s a small half-measure,” McCain said.
Kerry pushed back, suggesting that other countries — including those where he has been traveling during his first foreign trip — would take up other actions aiding the Syrian opposition.
“The totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals,” Kerry said.
Kerry also said he was continuing to evaluate other options. Without offering specifics, he said he would take several ideas back to Washington.
Washington has tried unsuccessfully to defuse the Syrian civil war since 2011. Reports that militants with links to Al Qaeda have reportedly taken control of some of the opposition forces have fueled concerns about arming the opposition forces. Some observers worry that American-backed weapons could get in the hands of Al Qaeda.
Kerry will need to work with Congress to deliver the funds, but a senior State Department official wasn’t sure whether they would need to explicitly approve the funding.
Earlier in the week, the Syrian opposition leaders were planning to boycott the meetings, out of frustration that the international community wasn’t doing more to help.
But Kerry persuaded the opposition leaders to come to Rome, making a personal phone call Khatib, sending an envoy to meet with him in Cairo, and saying at a press conference in London that he would not leave the rebels “dangling in the wind, wondering where the support is, if it is coming.”Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@mviser