WASHINGTON - Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Tuesday that the United States and allies are jointly planning new ways to accelerate the fall of the Syrian regime, amid signs that Washington may begin directly providing non-lethal aid to opposition fighters.
Speaking in Paris one day before a gathering of Syrian opposition officials and world leaders in Rome, Kerry said U.S. officials and allies are discussing ways to convince Syrian President Bashar Assad "that he can't shoot his way out of this. ... We are examining and developing ways to accelerate the political transition that the Syrian people want and deserve."
As many as 70,000 people have died in the almost two-year-long war between forces loyal to Assad and opposition fighters, according to the United Nations.
Administration officials, who have been under growing political pressure to expand the U.S. role, said they are weighing whether to begin directly supplying equipment such as armored vests and armored vehicles, which are non-lethal but valuable on the front lines. They remain opposed to providing arms, despite pleas from the rebels and many top U.S. officials.
Directly supplying aid would be significant for an administration that has been intent on limiting its involvement in the fight, and could presage other moves toward deeper involvement, analysts say. To date, the administration has provided humanitarian and non-lethal military aid through the political opposition and aid agencies, rather than directly to the fighters.
Such a decision "would be a big step, in that the former policy line of staying clear of armed groups would have to be redrawn," said Andrew Tabler, a leading Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "That has policy implications going forward."
Tabler said that in the absence of a "political track" - negotiations between the two sides to end the conflict - direct aid to the fighters was "inevitable."
The administration has been reluctant to provide arms because of the difficulty of knowing which of the dozens of loosely connected armed groups are trustworthy, and which might end up aligned with dangerous militants. But critics have argued that in the absence of U.S. arms, militant factions grow stronger and the U.S. fails to build ties that could be valuable when it comes time, after the war, to build a new Syria.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said the administration is trying to help the opposition "become stronger, more cohesive and more organized. As part of this effort, we will continue to analyze every feasible option that would accelerate a political transition to a post-Assad Syria."