John Kerry, the secretary of state, signaled in Rome last week a welcome movement in the Obama administration’s cautious approach to the crisis in Syria and what promises to be a boost to the hard-pressed rebel forces.
Nearly two years into the rebellion against the regime of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, the numbers indicate the growing desperation: The United Nations reckons more than 70,000 killed. About 870,000 more have sought refuge in neighboring countries; 2.5 million are displaced within Syria; and 4 million are in urgent need of assistance. Syria is crumbling as Assad’s military and rebel forces have fought to a stalemate that is prolonging the misery and increasing economic and political pressures in adjoining countries in an already volatile region.
The mounting casualties and the risk that a long stalemate will destabilize further the Middle East make the case to tip the scale in favor of the Syrian opposition. President Obama has been reluctant, and understandably so, to intervene forcefully, insisting it is up to the Syrians rebels to fight for their freedom. Besides, there is no appetite in the White House for another protracted and costly military engagement in the Middle East or for arming a rebellion with splintered leadership and extremist factions that later could turn the weapons against the U.S. and regional allies.
But if the White House has good reason to steer clear of military involvement, it cannot afford, either, to diminish its influence with the forces reshaping Syria’s future. Thus, it has been important to the Obama administration to tout $385 million so far in humanitarian aid distributed through aid networks to all who need help regardless of political considerations.
More relevant to the rebel cause is the significant increase to a much smaller pot of funding distributed as “nonlethal aid” through the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Designated to support civilian capacity-building activities, such as organizational training and communications in rebel-held areas, funding for nonlethal aid has been meager, roughly $50 million. That changes with the additional $60 million Kerry announced last week, and it promises significant relief. Unfortunately, it is not the weapons the rebels desperately need to tip the military scales in the war of attrition Assad is waging. .