Ambassador: US providing $114 million in aid to Syrian rebels

The Obama administration is providing the Syrian opposition with $114 million in aid, more than previously revealed, to help topple Bashar Assad, U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford told Congress on Wednesday.

Ford briefed House appropriators in a closed-door hearing following Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement last month that America would provide $60 million in direct food and medicine assistance to the Syrian Opposition Coalition. The aid, Ford said, is in addition to $54 million in communications gear and other aid already offered to “disparate Syrian opposition groups across the country to build a network of ethnically and religiously diverse civilian activists.”

“Preserving national unity and laying the foundation for a free Syria that respects the rights of all its citizens is essential if we are to secure a Syria that helps rather than threatens stability in the heart of the Middle East,” Ford told the committee, according to his opening statement, which was obtained by The Hill. “Collapse and fragmentation of the Syrian state or its takeover by extremists would worsen the risks associated with chemical weapons security, terrorist bases, and new refugee flows inundating neighboring states. Those outcomes would directly threaten our interests.”

He said the State Department would create a small grants initiative the Syrian Opposition Council would use to help local councils meet the needs of their citizens, including “supporting the work of these new governing institutions and helping them undertake service delivery projects for their communities.” And the U.S. Agency for International Development will create two programs designed to have “immediate impact”: One to provide short-term assistance for urgent needs, such as fuel, heaters, and nutritional and educational supplies for children; the other, to support strategic, longer-term needs such as repairing schools, local power, and sanitation. 

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Lawmakers were tight-lipped after the hearing.

“The membership is very concerned and the ambassador was very straightforward in what he had to say,” said Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. “A lot of questions, there aren't answers to yet because we don't know the end-game.”

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said he pressed for answers about the White House's decision to override last summer's recommendations from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to arm the rebels.

“Those are the concerns I had,” he said. 

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who represents a number of Syrian-Americans, has pressed the Department of Homeland Security to grant emergency temporary visas to the nearly nearly six thousand Syrian nationals with approved immigrant petitions. 

“We're trying to be as aggressive as we can without taking the risk that the assistance we give could be used against us down the road,” he said. “We continue to probe on the best way to assist the opposition.”