Kerry Says U.S. Will Speed New Aid to Syrian Opposition

Istanbul — Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that the United States would push to expedite delivery of new U.S. nonlethal military assistance to Syrian opposition fighters, including body armor and additional communications equipment.

“I’m going to press to make sure this is a matter of weeks. It has to happen quickly; it has to have an impact,” Kerry said at a news conference after marathon meetings over the weekend to unify the rebel movement and its international backers.

He said there would be additional consultations with Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the rebel Supreme Military Council, who attended the meetings in Istanbul, to determine what the opposition forces most need.

“Movement of those items (directly) to Gen. Idriss,” Kerry said, “is going to have an impact, particularly in the south,” where rebel fighters have begun to gain territory. Donor nations meeting here also pledged to funnel all future aid — weapons largely provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and nonlethal assistance from the United States, Britain, France and others — through the military council to prevent it from falling into the hands of Islamist extremist groups who have grown in power within the anti-Assad ranks.

Idriss, Kerry said, could not have been more clear about “what he and the opposition are doing to separate themselves from what some of the extreme elements are doing. ... We are quite confident that he is a strong leader with the capacity to make a difference.”

In a statement Saturday, leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, a political group, demanded that foreign supporters provide a no-fly zone and other offensive contributions to stop Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces from using aircraft as well as Scud and ballistic missiles to attack rebel-held areas.

Foreign ministers representing 11 countries that are the opposition’s biggest outside backers refused that request, and the coalition issued a statement saying the demands were aspirational. The rebels also renewed pledges of outreach to Syrian minorities who have stood behind Assad and promised a pluralistic government without reprisals.

Kerry’s description of the body armor and other defensive material was the first public confirmation that President Obama has approved additional shipments of nonlethal equipment directly to the rebel military, on top of food and medical supplies Kerry announced in February.

Those initial supplies have been slow to arrive, and senior administration officials said deliveries have been delayed by the need for congressional approval of funds, by the need for White House authorization to draw down military stocks and by what Kerry agreed Sunday had been “logjams” on the ground.

Kerry said that during his talks here with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, progress has been made to remove impediments to delivery.

The Obama administration has been frustrated with the anger expressed by Syrians on the ground at what they see as the paucity of U.S. assistance.

The administration has sent $385 million in humanitarian aid through international organizations and given $117 million in funds and supplies directly to the political and military opposition groups.

Kerry said Saturday that the new aid, including nonlethal supplies, would total an additional $123 million.

The 11-nation “core group” also discussed “how we might try to reach out to Russia” to persuade it to end its military assistance to Assad and its refusal to agree to a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning him, Kerry said.

In his meetings with Davutoglu, Kerry said, he also discussed efforts to reconcile Turkey and Israel, whose relationship has been strained since Israel’s lethal attack on a Turkish flotilla bringing aid to the Gaza Strip in 2010. Kerry said the administration has urged Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to postpone a planned trip next month to Gaza.