RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
After two years and an estimated 70,000 deaths, the U.S. is about to step up its involvement in Syria's civil war. The Obama administration has offered more direct aid to the Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the aid today after meeting with Syrian opposition leaders in Rome.
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SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: The stakes are really high, and we can't risk letting this country in the heart of the Middle East be destroyed by vicious autocrats, or hijacked by the extremists. In supporting the Syrian opposition coalition and the Free Syrian Army, we reject both of those choices.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Secretary Kerry, and joins us now for more. Good morning.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Tell us about this aid package. What specifically is different from what the U.S. has been doing in the past?
KELEMEN: What's different about it is it's directly to the Syrian opposition, and to rebels who are fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad's regime. You know, the administration's been very worried about the rise of jihadists in Syria. They're among the best-armed and most effective fighters. So the idea of this aid is to help more moderate rebels, and mainly to help the political opposition deliver basic services in liberated areas of Syria, to show that there is an alternative to Assad and the extremists, as you heard Kerry say in that quote.
So what the administration is asking from Congress is $60 million. And that's on top of aid that's gone to Syrians for humanitarian issues. This new aid will help with administrative functions, things like security, sanitation and education in those liberated zones inside Syria. And the U.S. is also sending technical advisors to the Syrian opposition council's offices in Cairo to get a handle on that aid.
MONTAGNE: Of course, it's military aid that the Syrian opposition has been saying it really wants. President Obama had rejected sending in weapons. Is this a move - is there anything in this that offers a move in that direction?
KELEMEN: Still not talking about arms. What the administration is offering to the Free Syrian Army are food rations and medical supplies. Kerry was asked: Is that it? Is that all that the U.S. can do? And he stressed that the food rations, the medical supplies are part of a whole package, that others are doing more. The European Union recently eased an arms embargo so that European countries could offer also nonlethal assistance, but at least things like maybe body armor or other things that the rebels need. There are reports that the U.S. is helping train fighters from Syria, but State Department officials won't answer any questions about that.
MONTAGNE: What, then, has been the reaction from the opposition leaders before the coalition of Syrian groups, and also the reaction of the Syrian rebels?
KELEMEN: Well, we're hearing from the rebels that, you know, they don't need food and medicine, that they need weapons, or at least some real equipment. But the person who came to these talks in Rome, Moaz al-Khatib, who's head of the Syrian opposition council, he didn't thank anyone for what was on offer. But he did say he was pleased to have the chance to tell Kerry and to tell others how desperate the situation has become in Syria. He gave a pretty fiery speech. He said, you know, the media's focused too much on the length of the beards of rebel fighters, rather than on the massacres. So he was referring to the jihadist forces, who are among the Syrian rebels. And he also said, you know, when you talk about terrorists, there's no one more savage, no terrorist more savage than the Assad regime.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Michele Kelemen, speaking to us from Rome. Thanks very much.
KELEMEN: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.