President Obama's decision to provide the Syrian opposition with another $60 million in aid — while continuing to withhold weapons — will disappoint those who have argued that the United States should step up its role in the battle to overthrow President Bashar Assad. But the administration is right: Arming the rebels now would be a mistake.
On Thursday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced the new aid program, which he said would help the Syrian opposition coalition deliver food, medicine, sanitation and education. Also, for the first time, food and medicine would be provided directly to units of the Free Syrian Army. But the package would not include guns, tanks or even night-vision goggles and bulletproof vests (though such items may be provided by U.S. allies). Even so, Kerry suggested, the aid package could help to "change President Assad's calculation" and, in concert with economic sanctions and renewed diplomatic pressure, induce him to step down.
Advocates of arming the rebels believe that more must be done to pressure Assad, who remains in power (albeit with limited sway over parts of the country) after nearly two years of fighting and an estimated 70,000 deaths. In a farewell appearance on Capitol Hill, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testified that the Pentagon, State Department and Central Intelligence Agency had unsuccessfully advocated for a program of training and arming selected rebel units. Even among those who doubt that arming the rebels would turn the tide militarily, many believe that supplying weapons would allow the U.S. to ingratiate itself with the forces that will govern Syria when Assad finally falls.