Help for Syrian rebels


PRESIDENT Obama is right to look for ways to increase pressure on Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, who has been slaughtering his people for two years, and to influence opposition forces that may one day form the government.

This week, the administration announced a plan to provide food rations and medical supplies to the Free Syrian Army, its first public commitment of direct, nonlethal aid for the armed opposition. But the new offer of help is unlikely to go very far toward changing Mr. Assad’s calculations, and seems unconnected to a coherent broader strategy.

The decision announced by Secretary of State John Kerry highlights the problem for Washington and its European partners: how to support the opposition and accelerate the ouster of a brutal dictator without getting pulled into another war in the Mideast.

Mr. Obama’s caution in resisting the opposition’s calls for military intervention and weapons remains the wise approach. After committing tens of thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s ability to affect the course of armed conflicts proved quite limited.

As the Syrian war continues, there is growing pressure to become more involved. An estimated 70,000 Syrians have been killed, and nearly 1 million have fled the country.

Al-Qaeda-linked foreign jihadists are gaining ground among rebel forces. Mr. Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, still wields power. There are fears that the state will disintegrate, destabilizing the region indefinitely.

Mr. Kerry said Washington would also more than double its aid to $110 million for the political wing of the anti-Assad coalition, to improve the delivery of basic services such as sanitation in rebel-controlled areas. Syrians who are struggling to survive in a war zone need the aid. But whether it will help the opposition win the hearts and minds of the people, as intended, or hurt the rebels, who might be labeled pro-American, is unclear.

The New York Times reported that the United States is also involved in a covert program to train rebel fighters at a base in the region. It is thinking of giving the rebels gear, such as body armor.

The administration may be waiting to see whether the rebels use the initial aid properly before it provides such equipment. Officials have yet to explain whether they have found a way to vet rebel groups so that aid goes to those who are most effective and likely to pursue a democratic course.

This week, the European Union amended its sanctions policy and opened the door to supplying the opposition with armored vehicles and other nonlethal military equipment. Given the failure of efforts to forge a political solution to the conflict, a Western turn toward greater support for the rebels may be inevitable.

Russia could still have a positive effect if it withdrew its support for Mr. Assad and stopped sending him weapons. Russia has as much interest as the United States, Europe, other Middle East states, and most Syrians in ensuring that al-Qaeda does not end up with a beachhead in Syria.

— New York Times