As the rebellion in Syria against dictator Bashar al Assad continues to explode, the regime is still outgunning the opposition, most recently raining Scud missiles on civilian areas in Aleppo. With the death toll mounting, senior administration officials tell NBC News that the U.S. will announce a policy shift tomorrow. Washington will begin to channel aid directly to selected groups of the Syrian opposition, rather than through non-governmental agencies.
The aid will still not include weapons--but the definition of "non-lethal" aid will be broadened. The new aid will include communications gear, body armor, night-vision goggles and--potentially--armored vehicles. Rebel leaders have complained bitterly about the lack of U.S. support, and the British have also pressed the Obama administration to help the rebels counter Assad's military. The Syrian government's use of Scud missiles last Friday against civilian areas of Aleppo may have forced the White House to step up its support for the rebels.
The announcement is expected tomorrow after Secretary of State John Kerry meets for the first time with Syrian Opposition Council Chairman Ahmad al-Khatib. On Monday from London, Secretary Kerry called the Syrian opposition leader (who was then in Cairo) to persuade him to come to Rome for a meeting, assuring him that he would not be left "dangling" and would get the increased assistance that the rebels have been seeking.
Although it was not known at the time, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, supported by military leaders, both urged last year that vetted units of the rebel force be armed and trained. As a senator, John Kerry recommended study of that and other options.
There is growing pressure from Republicans, led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, to also impose a no-fly zone.
On Andrea Mitchell Reports Wednesday, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, a member of the Armed Services Committee said, "I think the advice of our generals and admirals and some of the highest Defense Department officials have been to do just that, and I hope it's something we'll look it. I hope our new secretary of state will listen carefully to the more responsible of the Syrian opposition.
Andrea Mitchell asked Sen. Wicker if he favored increased aid, and if Washington should offer weapons. "I think there are ways and means for us to see that is done," Wicker said. "I think Secretary of State Kerry is going to be listening to those proposals, and I think if he does what he's being told at the highest levels of the Pentagon, we may be moving, yes, to military aid for the responsible opposition groups."
"Do you have any concerns that weapons could get into the wrong hands, especially with so many radical Islamists now having infiltrated some of the opposition movement?" Mitchell asked.
"That's always a concern, yes," he replied. "There's no question it's a concern, but this has gone on too long. The Assad regime needs to fall. President Assad needs to leave. And I think the international communities are coming around to that conclusion.... and we can use the power and influence that we have, with our State Department and taking the advice of the professionals in the Pentagon, to do just that."
Watch Andrea Mitchell's interview with Senator Roger Wicker here: