John Kerry: "more coordinated, effective" Syria rebels have "altered the possibilities"

Last Updated May 28, 2014 10:19 AM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday defended President Obama's decision to increase American help for Syria's rebel fighters, telling "CBS This Morning" co-host Charlie Rose the move was not an implicit acknowledgement that more should have been done years ago, but rather a calculated reaction to "a transition, which has fundamentally altered the possibilities."

President Obama is considering giving the green light for the U.S. military to train moderate, vetted Syrian rebels and increase material support to them.

CBS News' Margaret Brennan said it would be the first time the Obama administration acknowledged any form of training for the rebels, and would signal a new stage of limited U.S. involvement in Syria's three-year civil war, which has left more than 160,000 people dead.

A source with knowledge of the program emphasized that it was a policy decision and that there would be a "very long" process before it could be practically implemented.

Asked directly by Rose whether the administration's move represented "a recognition that the president should have done more earlier," when many within the government were pushing for stepped-up aid for the rebels, Kerry rejected the suggestion, saying the opposition forces spent most of their time during the last year "fighting itself."

The moderate rebels "spent a huge amount of time fighting not against Assad, but radical extremists," said Kerry.

That, according to the secretary of state, has now changed.

"We believe there is more coordinated, effective leadership within the opposition," said Kerry. "There's been a transition, which has fundamentally altered the possibilities."

Kerry went so far as to say "the division has ended" among the rebel groups fighting in Syria.

Without doubt, Islamic extremist factions still represent a potent force on the ground in Syria, particularly in the north where the al Qaeda affiliated ISIS and the rival al Nusra group hold significant territory.

In many instances on the battlefield, these groups have proven to be the more effective fighters against the regime -- but fighting between the extremist groups, and between the radicals and more moderate factions, has been a major impediment to opposition leaders' quest for international support.

According to Syria expert Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center and fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, not bolstering the moderate rebel factions "was a mistake two years ago," and, more than any major shift in those rebels' own prowess, the change in U.S. policy is likely down to a realization that there are now few other options.

"There is no space for a political process," Shaikh told CBS News, citing the second round of international peace talks that ended in failure early this year.

The peace process is "dead in the water," added Shaikh, "because the Assad regime feels it is winning."

Kerry made no mention of that particular reality on the ground in Syria, but it would have been hard to deny, less than three weeks after rebel fighters were forced to abandon their positions in Homs -- the long-fought over central city known as the "capital of the revolution."

Shaikh notes that Assad is poised to claim a "political victory" with his all-but-certain reelection in the nation's June 3 presidential vote (an election the U.S. has dubbed a "farce" as there are no serious opposition candidates and it's to take place in the middle of a war), and may well declare a military victory over the rebels soon after.

Meanwhile, the radical Islamic factions -- while a minority of the anti-Assad fighters on the ground -- have become an increasing concern for U.S. and European intelligence officials.

"I'm afraid Syria has now become a breeding ground for extremism and jihadism," said Shaikh, echoing sentiments voiced by intelligence officials in the West for months.

Shaikh said he was also "afraid that is something that is going to continue unless there is a qualitative change in the rebels."

An effort to try and drive that "qualitative" change -- albeit two years late, in his opinion -- is behind the shift in the Obama administration's Syria policy this week, according to Shaikh.

The Brookings scholar also said the U.S. has "probably spent a lot more time getting to know the fighting groups on the ground" during the last year, and thus is now more comfortable training and arming some of them.

It's unclear whether greater U.S. support can create "a rebel force able to simultaneously fight the jihadists and the regime," noted Shaikh, and even if it can, he warns "it's not enough."

To put an end to the civil war, there needs to be a "genuine national dialogue," stressed Shaikh, and "a political solution will take a long time to develop."

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