The US is ratcheting up its support for the Syrian opposition in an effort to oust President Bashar Assad, and has even begun training rebels to that end, The New York Times reported Thursday.
Senior American administration officials told the paper that the US was training the rebels at a base somewhere in the Middle East, and would be offering the rebels nonlethal assistance, but not arms.
The effort to train rebels is the most significant US involvement so far in a civil war that has killed tens of thousands of Syrians in two years.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is on a 10-day tour of Europe, was scheduled to meet with Syrian opposition leaders in Rome on Thursday with the intention of offering them the materiel and possibly financial aid, as well. Nonlethal equipment would include vehicles, communications equipment, and night-vision goggles, the report said.
US officials were quoted as saying that the Obama administration had not changed its position regarding arming the rebels, which was why the assistance would not include any weapons.
However, the report said, there would be a significant change in policy in terms of who receives the aid packages. Thus far, US aid has been sent to local councils and unarmed groups, but the planned increase in support would see resources delivered further afield, if the logistics can ensure that equipment really does make it to the frontline rebels.
Officials also reportedly noted that while not the US would not be providing arms directly, financial aid could allow rebel groups to direct other cash they are holding toward the acquisition of weapons.
One of the primary goals of providing financial aid was to promote the Syrian Opposition Council, which incorporates all the rebel forces, as a legitimate government with the ability to administer Syria, the report said. The US is concerned that undesirable groups, such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front, are gaining a foothold in some regions and establishing themselves as the local authority. Since the war started in 2011, the US has provided some $365 million in humanitarian aid, and now the administration wants to make sure that recognized opposition groups can take advantage of it by building their credibility on the ground, the report said.
The move by the US comes a week after the European Union agreed to send nonlethal equipment to the Syrian rebels, although exactly what that will entail has yet to be decided. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also called for providing more support to the rebels after a meeting with Kerry in Paris on Wednesday, but did not detail exactly what form that support should take.