WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has ramped up U.S. aid, including communications equipment and medical supplies, to Syria's opposition in hopes of accelerating the downfall of President Bashar Assad, officials said Friday.
The president signed off on the $12 million package last week, U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. They would not outline all forms of American assistance because of the danger anti-Assad protesters have faced over the past year.
After a year of violence in Syria, a tenuous truce has taken hold this week. Tens of thousands of Syrians protested against the government on Friday. Security forces used live fire, tear gas and beat some protesters, but there was no immediate sign of wide-scale shelling or sniper attacks.
Obama spoke about potential aid options last month during a lengthy private meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in South Korea. Officials said at the time that Washington and its allies were considering providing Syrian rebels with communication, medical and other "nonlethal" aid.
They've declined to outline publicly what might be encompassed by nonlethal aid. That could include clothing, bullet-proof vests, radios, night vision goggles or other objects Washington provided last year to Libyan rebels as they fought a civil war to overthrow dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But officials stressed the majority of the aid was medical and communications supplies.
The U.S. officials said the package Obama approved will be given to Syria's "nonviolent, political opposition" and not to armed rebels. It was unclear whether any monitoring will take place.
Washington had been providing satellite phones, SIM cards and other such equipment already, officials acknowledged, but said the level of assistance will now be increased. No figures for the value of the assistance were immediately available.
The administration views the aid as critical to supporting the U.S. policy to "hasten Assad's fall and push forward with a stable and democratic transition," an official said.
The U.S. and its partners have been trying to help the opposition organize itself and maintain better communications with members outside the country, so that they can coalesce around a common post-Assad vision for Syria. Radio assistance and the like also could help opposition members evade Syrian government regime attacks.
The Obama administration believes the Syrian government, with Iran's help, is actively jamming private communications and satellite Arabic television networks in an aggressive campaign to cut off anti-government organizers from the outside.