ROME The Obama administration said Thursday that it will provide the Syrian opposition with an additional $60 million in assistance and — in a significant policy shift — will for the first time provide nonlethal aid like food and medical supplies directly to rebels battling to oust President Bashar Assad.
The move was announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at an international conference on Syria in Rome, and several European nations are expected in the coming days to take similar steps in working with the military wing of the opposition to ramp up pressure on Assad to step down and pave the way for a democratic transition.
“We do this because we need to stand on the side of those in this fight who want to see Syria rise again and see democracy and human rights,” Kerry said. “The stakes are really high, and we can’t risk letting this country in the heart of the Middle East being destroyed by vicious autocrats or hijacked by the extremists.”
“No nation, no people should live in fear of their so-called leaders,” he said, adding that President Barack Obama’s “decision to take further steps now is the result of the brutality of superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah.”
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.