EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 5, 2013

Column: Kerry outlines change in policy toward Syria

Dale McFeatters
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — U.S. policy toward Syria, ever since civil war broke out in response to Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on demonstrations against his regime, has been relatively straightforward: We wanted Assad, his family and entourage out, to be replaced by an orderly transition to democracy.

Although the U.S. strongly opposed the presence of radical Islamists among the rebels, American sympathies clearly lay with the rebels. Even though we donated several hundred million dollars to refugee relief, we could plausibly maintain a certain posture of hands-off neutrality toward the actual conflict.

No longer. As much as we may cloak it in the bland language of diplomacy, we have now, in effect, become participants.

At an international conference in Rome on Syria, new Secretary of State John Kerry announced that, for the first time, we would give $60 million in “non-lethal” aid to the Free Syrian Army, whose numbers we would carefully screen against the presence of Islamic radicals. It is not clear how, in the confusing welter of groups that constitute the Syrian opposition, we would do that.

The Obama administration’s decision was prompted by the growing presence among the rebels of fighters linked to Hezbollah and Iran. We would not see a post-Assad Syria “hijacked by the extremists,” Kerry said.

The initial aid would be medical supplies and food rations. But these things have a way of ratcheting up. In fact, the ratcheting may have already started.

Britain and France, perhaps joined by other European nations, have indicated they will begin supplying the Free Syrian Army with “defensive military equipment” — such as armored vehicles, body armor and night-vision goggles, and the training to go with them.

The European Union prohibits supplying either side with arms and ammunition, but that’s precisely what the opposition wants.

The head of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, Gen. Salim Idris, told a Turkish news agency that his fighters need antitank and antiaircraft missiles, assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

A key opposition leader suggested that the outside nations create protected humanitarian corridors in Syria, which would entail clearing and holding Syrian territory. The conference did not reject the idea.

“Non-lethal,” in the case of the U.S., may only be a synonym for greater things to come. With this action, we now have a vested interest in the outcome.

Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.