U.S. weighing direct aid to Syrian rebels: sources

PARIS Washington is reviewing a proposal to provide direct aid to Syrian rebels in the form of non-lethal military support, sources tell CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan.

That could include a range of options, from training on chemical weapons security to giving equipment that includes combat armor.

The specifics have not yet been decided on and the U.S. State Department is not commenting.

Secretary of State John Kerry is in Paris Wednesday and is consulting with European partners on the type of support to offer the Syrian opposition leaders when they meet Thursday in Rome.

On Tuesday, he publicly endorsed the idea of directly aiding the rebels, telling a group in Berlin that, "If the president of the country (Bashar Assad) decides he isn't going to come and negotiate and he's just going to kill his people, then you at least need to provide some support for the people who are fighting."

The commander in chief of Free Syrian Army forces, Gen. Salim Idris, made a public plea for financial support via YouTube this week. He calls on Syrian expatriates living in the U.S., Europe and Canada to provide financial help and says the FSA is unable to pay the wages of rebel fighters. He asks that donations be made through an American-based organization called the Syrian Support Group.

The Obama administration has repeatedly refused to provide direct support to the fighters concerned it could one day wind up in the hands of radical Islamists who have become a significant factor in the Syrian conflict and could then use that materiel for terrorist attacks.

However, the State Department's top envoy to the Syrian opposition, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, has been in regular communication with the FSA military command for months.

The administration's change in stance comes as it seeks to ramp up pressure on Assad to step down and end nearly two years of brutal and increasingly deadly violence.

Still, says CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward, it's not really clear at this stage how much of an impact the new aid would actually have on the ground. The Syrian rebels CBS News has spoken to have said over and over that what they need are heavy weapons and a lot of money. So far, this proposal does not contain either of those.

Officials in the United States and Europe tell The Associated Press the administration is nearing a decision on whether to provide the assistance, which would go to carefully vetted fighters opposed to the Assad regime, in addition to what is already being supplied to the political opposition.

A decision is expected by Thursday's meeting -- an international conference that leaders of the opposition Syrian National Coalition have been persuaded to attend, the officials said.

The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, because the shift in strategy has not yet been finalized and still needs to be coordinated with European nations, notably Britain. They are eager to vastly increase the size and scope of assistance for Assad's foes.

Kerry, who was a cautious proponent of supplying arms to the rebels while he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been consulting with European leaders on how to step up pressure on Assad to leave power.

The effort has been as a major focus of his first official trip abroad as America's top diplomat. On the first two stops on his hectic nine-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East, in London and Berlin, he has sought to assure the Syrian opposition that more help is on the way.

Secretary of State John Kerry at 10 Downing Street, during meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron Monday in London.
Paul Rogers-WPA Pool/Getty Images

In London on Monday, he made a public appeal to opposition coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib not to boycott the Rome meeting as had been threatened and to attend the conference despite concerns among Assad foes that international community is not doing enough. Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden made private telephone calls to al-Khatib to make the same case.

The officials in Washington and European capitals said the British are pushing proposals to provide military training, body armor and other technical support to members of the Free Syrian Army who have been determined not to have links to extremists. The officials said, however, that the U.S. was not yet ready to consider such action, although Washington would not object if the Europeans moved ahead with the plans.

Officials in Washington said the United States was leaning toward providing tens of millions of dollars more in non-lethal assistance to the opposition, including vetted members of the Free Syrian Army who had not been receiving direct U.S. assistance. So far, assistance has been limited to funding for communications and other logistical equipment, a formalized liaison office and an invitation to al-Khatib to visit the United States in the coming weeks.

The officials stressed to the AP, however, that the administration did not envision American military training for the rebels, nor U.S. provision of combat items such as body armor that the British are advocating.

The Washington Post reports, though, that the Obama administration is "moving toward" giving Syrian rebels "equipment such as body armor and armored vehicles, and possibly military training," but "U.S. officials remain opposed to providing weapons to the rebels."

The officials said the U.S. is also looking at stepping up its civilian technical assistance devoted to rule of law, civil society and good governance, in order to prepare an eventual transition government to run the country once Assad leaves.

In Europe, meanwhile, Kerry on Tuesday visited Berlin, where he met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for the first time in his new post.

In a closed-door session, Kerry and Lavrov discussed Syria for more than an hour, reports correspondent Brennan.

The Assad regime's foreign minister met with Lavrov in Moscow this week and said the regime was ready to speak with the armed opposition.

Russia remains one of the Assad regime's few remaining allies, Brennan notes. Russia has, along with China, repeatedly blocked efforts at the United Nations to impose global sanctions against the regime unless it stops the violence that has killed nearly 70,000 people.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the two met for an hour and 45 minutes, spending more than half that time on Syria in what she called a "really serious and hardworking session."

Kerry and Lavrov discussed how they could implement the so-called Geneva Agreement, which is designed to get the Syrian government and rebels to plan a transitional government for the time after Assad leaves office, Nuland said.

Lavrov told Russian news agencies that his talks with Kerry were "quite constructive." On Syria, he said the two reaffirmed their "intention to do all Russia and the U.S. can do. It's not that everything depends on us, but we shall do all we can to create conditions for the soonest start of a dialogue between the government and the opposition."

The Syrian National Coalition is skeptical about outside help from the West and threatened to boycott the Rome meeting until a series of phone calls and meetings between Kerry and his ambassadors and Syrian opposition leaders repaired the schism. The council now says it will attend the meeting, but is hoping for more concrete offers of help, including military assistance.