- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2013

The leader of Syria’s main opposition group sought to allay Western fears Thursday that terrorists have infiltrated the rebel movement in the war-torn nation, as U.S. officials touted a new plan to ship meals and medical supplies — but not weapons — to those fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

Mouaz al-Khatib, chairman of the Syrian Opposition Council, said “no terrorist in the world have such a savage nature as that of the Syrian regime.”

“The mass media pay more attention to the length of the beard of a fighter than to the massacres” being committed against innocent Syrians by government forces loyal to Mr. Assad, Mr. al-Khatib said during a news conference with Secretary of State John F. Kerry in Rome.

His remarks underscore the sensitivity of the policy shift being undertaken this week by the Obama administration, which has for months resisted offering weapons or any other direct aid to the rebels amid concern that it would be siphoned off by al Qaeda-linked or other militant Islamist groups.

Under the new policy, Mr. Kerry said, the administration is committed to extending “food and medical supplies” to the fighters associated with Mr. al-Khatib’s coalition. Additionally, the secretary of state said, the U.S. will be providing $60 million in immediate aid to “support the coalition in its operational needs day to day as it continues to organize.”

The announcement drew praise from some lawmakers in Washington — even among those calling for the White House to get more aggressively and deeply involved in the Syrian crisis by directly arming the rebels.

“I think what Secretary Kerry announced is a good first step,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who made headlines this week by declaring his intention to introduce a bill that would authorize President Obama to go further by backing the rebels with American military hardware.

“I do think that, ultimately, we are going to have to provide some kind of weapons,” Mr. Engel said during an appearance Thursday on MSNBC.

Also appearing on the network was Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who echoed Mr. Engel’s remarks, saying that deeper U.S. involvement in Syria is necessary to “counterbalance” support that Iran is believed to be providing to Mr. Assad.

“Iran has forces on the ground, assisting Assad, as does Hezbollah,” said Mr. Royce, who added that the Obama administration’s new policy will help to “expedite the time frame in which Assad is removed” and “cut off Iran’s last Arab ally that exists in the Middle East.”

But Mr. Royce also praised the Obama administration’s approach, suggesting that it leaves open the door for wider cooperation with allies in the European Union, which voted recently to extend a ban on shipping weapons to Syrian rebels.

Others, including Republican Sens. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, have for months called on the Obama administration to get more deeply involved by shipping arms directly to the rebels. The Republicans have seemed undeterred by concerns that American aid — be it lethal or nonlethal — could end up in the hands of terrorists.

Such concerns, however, continue to sit at the heart of a debate that has long divided the administration’s most senior foreign policy and national security advisers about how best to respond to the crisis in Syria.

State Department officials engaged in a delicate rhetorical dance around the issue Thursday as Mr. Kerry headed into a private meeting with Mr. al-Khatib and Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi.

“We are concerned that we have extremists operating in and among the opposition who don’t share the goals of a future Syria that is democratic,” one senior State Department official told reporters on the condition of anonymity.

As a result, the official said, the policy of moving aid to the rebels must be implemented “carefully and appropriately,” with materials going only to “vetted individuals” and “vetted units” fighting on the ground in Syria.

How to successfully conduct such vetting remains at the core of a debate that has long divided some of the Obama administration’s most senior foreign policy and national security officials. Details remained vague Thursday. The senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, implied that Mr. al-Khatib’s coalition, which is based in Cairo, would play a significant role.

The official declined to comment on the extent to which U.S. military forces may be involved in directly training Syrian rebels.

An estimated 70,000 Syrians have been killed in fighting since military forces loyal to Mr. Assad began cracking down on opposition groups in March 2011. Despite the Obama administration’s public resistance to flooding the conflict with weapons, news reports have suggested that the White House and CIA have collaborated with Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are secretly channeling weapons to the rebels.

A report this week by The New York Times cited unidentified “American and Western officials” as saying that Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to the rebels.

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