PARIS – The Obama administration, in coordination with some European allies, is for the first time considering supplying direct assistance to elements of the Free Syrian Army as they seek to ramp up pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down and end nearly two years of brutal and increasingly deadly violence.
Officials in the United States and Europe said Tuesday the administration is nearing a decision on whether to provide non-lethal assistance to carefully vetted fighters opposed to the Assad regime in addition to what it is already supplying to the political opposition.
A decision is expected by Thursday when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will attend an international conference on Syria in Rome that leaders of the opposition Syrian National Coalition have been persuaded to attend, the officials said.
The officials spoke 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.
Kerry on Tuesday visited Berlin where he met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for the first time in his new post, discussing the Syria conflict. Russia has been a strong supporter of Assad and has, along with China, blocked efforts at the United Nations to impose sanctions against the regime unless it stops the violence that has killed nearly 70,000.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Kerry and Lavrov discussed how they could implement the so-called Geneva Agreement designed to get the Syrian government and rebels to plan a transitional government for the time after Assad leaves office.