Secretary of State on defense after offering limited aid to Syrian opposition

Secretary of State John Kerry defended the Obama administration's decision Thursday to provide limited aid to the rebels in Syria amid aggressive questioning.

The White House had been mulling sending bullet-proof vests and helmets to the rebels battling Bashar Assad's regime,reported Tuesday. Kerry's announcement of $60 million in food and medicine ahead of a meeting with the Syrian opposition however fell well short of that.

“I am absolutely confident from what I heard in there from other foreign ministers that the totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals,” Kerry told reporters in Rome after meeting with officials from several European and Middle Eastern countries that support the rebels.

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“Now, when you said 'all you are doing is providing,' that’s not all we’re doing. We are providing some $60 million, the most significant portion of which is going directly to the Syrian opposition to enable it to be able to organize more effectively, to be able to carry its message more effectively, to be able to reach people within Syria so that in secured areas, they have an ability to be able to deliver what they can’t deliver today. That will help them build support much more rapidly.”

Kerry suggested he was working with Congress to make sure the aid is delivered rapidly.

“Part of this money we have programmed in some of the things that we are doing now, but in addition to that, I’ve touched base with key members of Congress who I think are prepared to be helpful,” he said. “I’ve agreed to brief them the minute I get back from this trip. I will personally be engaged in that process ... so I feel very confident about it, as does the president and his advisers in the White House who signed off on this knowing that this would require rapid delivery.”

The White House is coming under increasing pressure to take a more active role in the two-year civil war, which has left 70,000 dead.

Republican hawks led by Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) have called for arming the opposition while the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), is introducing legislation to do so in the coming days. And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in a foreign policy address Wednesday pressed for the administration to begin sending ammunition to the Syrian fighters.