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Can aid without weapons help resolve Syrian conflict?

Hussein Malla / AP

Syrian rebel fighters take their positions as they observe the Syrian army forces base of Wadi al-Deif, at the front line of Maarat al-Nuaman town, in Idlib province, Syria, on Feb. 26, 2013.

News Analysis 

Nearly two years after the Syrian uprising began, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the U.S. has for the first time agreed to directly supply Syria's opposition with $60 million in non-lethal aid. But, while this money is needed, it is unlikely to immediately change anything on the ground. 

Speaking under the condition of anonymity, supporters of the opposition working to topple Syrian President Bashar al Assad said they were privately disappointed that the U.S. didn't extend more assistance, specifically weapons, and that the EU has not yet lifted an arms embargo.


But the concern among U.S. officials is that extremist elements are increasingly filling in the vacuum in areas where the regime has been pushed back and the opposition is struggling to govern. There are worries weapons could end up in the wrong hands.

According to Salman Sheikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, Kerry’s announcement is "unlikely to change the calculation of the Syrian regime's biggest allies — Russia, Iran and Hezbollah." They will not take the U.S. decision as a serious threat to the regime's survival. 


Sheikh, who has advocated for arming the rebels, says $60 million is an insignificant amount for an opposition that is now expected to operate like a government in some parts of Syria. The salaries of civil servants who are expected to maintain law and order, as well as the country’s justice, sanitation and education services, can cost close to $500 million a month. And Sheikh estimates humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of the people displaced and suffering both inside and outside is about $40 million a day.

The U.S. aid package, which will assist the Syrian Opposition Coalition in 'liberated' areas, is aimed at helping the fledgling coalition expand the delivery of basic goods and services, including security, sanitation and educational services. The United States also will send technical advisers to support opposition staff in Egypt and work with the movement's military arm to provide non-lethal support to the Free Syrian Army, including things such as military rations and medical supplies to tend to sick and wounded fighters.

Foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia and Qatar described Thursday's announcement as a transformational point in the Syrian conflict. And British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his government would be making an announcement on additional aid to the opposition next week. 

However, Yaser Tabbara, the spokesperson for the Coalition and its legal advisor, said Kerry’s Rome meeting with the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al Khatib, gave reason for "cautious" optimism.

The Syrian opposition is under increasing pressure to deliver a solution but doing so requires substantial "investment in the infrastructure of the armed opposition," Tabbara said. "A political solution without tipping the balance of power on the ground is not viable."

The Syrian opposition had promised to form an interim government by March 2 but that has been postponed for logistical reasons. 

Meanwhile, Syria's official government news agency described Kerry's announcement as a paradox, saying it expressed "Washington's desire to find means to speed up the political process, which aims at ending the crisis in Syria and its desire to help and back the armed terrorist groups in the country."

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U.S. to send rations, medical supplies to Syrian rebels, but not weapons