WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is expected to give Syrian rebels broader nonlethal military assistance, including body armor and night-vision goggles, while stopping short of providing weapons to forces fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The timing and scope of the stepped-up aid package is unclear. President Barack Obama has not given final approval and an announcement is not imminent, according to a senior administration official, who requested anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the internal deliberations.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in London on Wednesday to meet with Syrian opposition leaders, hinted this week at quick action, saying broader assistance for the rebels has been “front and center” in administration discussions in recent days.
“I’m not sure what the schedule is, but I do believe that it’s important for us to try to continue to put the pressure on President Assad and to try to change his calculation,” Kerry said.
With Syria’s civil war in its third year, the U.S. and its allies are struggling to find ways to stem the violence that, according to the United Nations, has killed more than 70,000 people. Despite growing international pressure, Assad has managed to hang on to power far longer than the Obama administration first expected.
Obama has resisted pressure to arm the rebels, in part out of fear that the weapons could fall into the hands of fighters who have allied with Islamic extremists.
Underscoring that concern, the leader of the most formidable rebel group in Syria pledged allegiance Wednesday to al-Qaida, though he distanced himself from a claim that his Islamic extremist faction had merged with the terrorist network’s Iraqi branch.