ROME — The additional $60 million in U.S. civilian aid for the Syrian Opposition - announced Thursday by Secretary of State John Kerry, along with an unspecified amount of non-lethal aid to some of its military forces - falls far short of what the Syrian activists wanted. The opposition met with Kerry and dozens of other foreign supporters.
The continuing death and destruction in Syria have intensified international concern, but have not changed the strategic situation: The West and key Arab countries don't want to do anything that would strengthen the militant wings of the Syrian opposition.
That was the dilemma facing Kerry and other foreign leaders when they met with key Syrian opposition figures in Rome on Thursday. The result was a $60-million increase in U.S. civilian aid.
“This funding will allow the opposition to reach out and help the local councils to be able to rebuild in their liberated areas of Syria, so that they can provide basic services to people who often lack access today to medical care, to food, to sanitation," said Kerry.
The United States also will for the first time provide aid directly to the Syrian rebel fighters - combat rations and medical supplies, but not the weapons, vehicles and body armor they want. There is concern that any aid could fall into the hands of the militants.
And there is another reason, according to Daniel Serwer of Washington's Middle East Institute - a desire not to antagonize Syria's main foreign supporter, Russia.
“The United States needs Russian help on Afghanistan with the withdrawal of American troops through the northern distribution network, troops and equipment, and it needs Russian help for the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran," said Serwer.
Still, Serwer said the limited U.S. aid will be significant. “I think it will make a difference because I think if the opposition starts to be seen as a real alternative to the regime, that would make a big difference both within Syria and more broadly in the world.”
Kerry indicating the idea is to provide a credible alternative not only to the regime, but to militant rebel groups that have been effective at providing services in liberated areas.
Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Institution agreed that there is an important political element to the new U.S. aid. But he said it won't make much practical difference.
“The United States is edging forward, but in and of itself, biscuits and Band-Aids are not going to change the conflict on the ground. The conflict is in a very dangerous situation now,” said Shaikh.
Kerry wants the new international aid to change Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's calculation about whether he should resign or continue to fight. Previous efforts have not.
Nor have the passage of more than a year - and Assad's increased attacks on civilians - changed the U.S. calculation that it is best not to get involved militarily, or even to arm the opposition it supports.