The United States is significantly stepping up its support for the Syrian opposition, senior administration officials said on Wednesday, helping to train rebels at a base in the region and for the first time offering armed groups nonlethal assistance and equipment that could help their military campaign.
The training mission, already under way, represents the deepest American involvement yet in the Syrian conflict, though the size and scope of the mission is not clear, nor is its host country. The offer of nonlethal assistance is expected to come from Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting on Thursday in Rome with opposition leaders. Mr. Kerry is also expected to raise the prospect of direct financial aid, though officials cautioned that the White House still had to sign off on all the elements.
Before arriving in Rome on Wednesday, Mr. Kerry declared in Paris that the Syrian opposition needed additional assistance and indicated that the United States and its partners planned to provide some.
Under a broad definition of “nonlethal,” assistance to the opposition could include items like vehicles, communications equipment and night vision gear. The Obama administration has said it will not — at least for now — provide arms to the opposition.
One major goal of the administration is to help the opposition build up its credibility within Syria by providing traditional government services to the civilian population. Since the conflict erupted two years ago, the United States has sent $365 million in humanitarian aid to Syrians. American officials have been increasingly worried that extremist members of the resistance against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, notably the Al Nusra Front, which the United States has asserted is affiliated with Al Qaeda, will take control of portions of Syria and cement its authority by providing public services, much as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon.
“Some folks on the ground that we don’t support and whose interests do not align with ours are delivering some of that help,” Mr. Kerry said.