The Obama administration was right to stop short Thursday of committing battlefield aid to the rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. The $60 million package of medical and food assistance that Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Rome will help address the humanitarian crisis of a two-year-old civil war that has killed some 70,000 people, without moving the United States to take on a military role it cannot afford. The administration should resist the pressure from its European allies to intervene more directly, which would only prolong the fighting and add to the regional unrest and misery.
Kerry's announcement came as the Western coalition met in an effort to reach a breakthrough on a civil stalemate that shows no signs of abating. The United States already has provided $385 million in humanitarian aid to the war-torn areas, and another $54 million in nonlethal supplies to the Syrian opposition. The $60 million in new aid will help the rebels operate basic services in the liberated areas — a prelude to opposition forces to establishing their credibility with the local population. The allies also hinted Thursday that a more robust aid package is in the works for the coming weeks.
The money won't go far toward meeting a humanitarian crisis in which an estimated 4 million people have been forced from their homes. But it sends a signal to the Syrian people that the United States is not blind to their plight. And it tells the neighboring states of Turkey and Jordan that the United States recognizes the refugee problem as a global concern. More importantly, the measure will mark the first time that Washington has sent aid directly to the military wing of the opposition. It is an opportunity to test the rebels' competence in handling outside money and managing the heavy demand for civil and emergency services.
The administration was right to avoid the same degree of eagerness that Britain and France have shown to supply the rebels with so-called defensive military assistance, from body armor and armored vehicles to other equipment and training. The nonlethal aid is enough to bring a new sense of legitimacy to the main rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, without locking the coalition with an opposition force that still lacks discipline and ideological unity. Besides, defensive assistance can easily be converted into offensive uses, either by outfitting rebel forces directly or freeing up money for new ammunition and weapons. This is a recipe for increasing the fighting and funneling arms to autonomous rebel groups who come from outside Syria or who have no allegiance to a unified command.
The aid buys some time for the allies and Syria's opposition to build a level of confidence, and for Assad's enablers in Russia to follow through on prodding the Syrian regime toward a political settlement. It provides a front for the coalition to assess the rebels' makeup and capability at closer range. And it discounts, for now, the perception that the rebels are acting as proxies for the West. As tragic as the death toll is, there is no military magic on the horizon for either side. The right course now is to de-escalate the fighting, ramp up the diplomatic pressure on Russia and further isolate Assad. Before the West goes all in, it better know who it's behind.