AMMAN, Jordan — The U.S. and several key allies looked again Wednesday for a strategy to end Syria’s civil war, their united efforts unable at the moment to stem the Assad regime’s military gains and Washington still unwilling to join those providing the rebels with lethal military aid.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry allowed that President Barack Obama won’t send American troops to Syria. But he made clear that more aid to the rebels would be coming if the regime refuses to cooperate with an international effort — to be put together in June in Geneva — to form a transitional government.
“In the event that we can’t find that way forward, in the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate Geneva in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support, growing support for opposition in order to permit them to continue to fight for the freedom of their country,” Kerry told a news conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
They later joined nine of their colleagues from Europe and the Arab world in the Jordanian capital of Amman, alongside Syrian opposition leaders George Sabra and Gen. Salim Idris to plot a path forward. There, the U.S. and its partners sought to convince Syria’s rebels of the need to participate in any peace effort.
“The only alternative to a negotiated settlement,” Kerry told the larger meeting, “is more killing, is more innocent civilian deaths, more chaos, more instability in part of the world that has already suffered too much.”
“That path would lead to a lot more families being torn apart, to a lot more refugees crossing the borders,” he said. “It is a path that would lead, potentially, to the splitting apart of Syria itself.”
Wednesday’s meeting came after several weeks of military gains by the Assad regime, including the reopening of a key southern highway to Jordan and a push into a strategic rebel-held western town over the weekend.
Such successes will likely harden Assad’s position in any peace talks. The Syrian leader has said that he will not step down as a result of transition talks, and that Syria’s political future must be determined in elections. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed since March 2011.
A Jordanian-based Western diplomat, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said the Assad regime was proving more resilient than expected. He said his government was concluding the rebels might not be able to defeat it without greater and more direct assistance.
Some of that new resilience in the Syrian regime comes from help from Iran and the militant Hezbollah movement.
Kerry warned those regime allies to stop providing assistance to Assad, saying such activity “perpetuates the regime’s campaign of terror against its own people.”
After the foreign ministers broke from their meeting early Thursday, they issued a joint statement denouncing the “flagrant intervention” in Syria by Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, and called for their immediate withdrawal from the country.
Kerry, in his statements Wednesday, didn’t spell out any specific American threats of action if the Syrian government and its allies press on with the war. But he said Obama was keeping all options on the table.
“We have to hope that Bashar Assad and his regime will understand the meaning of that, and the Iranians and others will understand the meaning of that,” Kerry said.
To that end, an administration official in Washington said the White House would soon notify Congress about an expanded package of non-lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels.
Details of the aid package are still being finalized, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the expanded aid publicly and insisted on anonymity.
But the package is likely to include armored vehicles and communications gear, two U.S. officials said. It is not expected to include night vision goggles or body armor, underscoring the cautious approach the U.S. has taken regarding military-style assistance to the opposition.
As Kerry and his counterparts arrived at the meeting venue in Amman, about 250 pro-Assad demonstrators blocked the main entrance.
The protesters, a mix of Jordanians and Syrians, chanted “Death to America,” and, “Go home, Kerry we don’t want you here.”
A key battle has been waged since Sunday over control of the western town of Qusair, which had been in rebel hands for more than a year. Qusair is located along a land corridor that links two Assad strongholds, the capital Damascus and the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect along the Mediterranean coast.
Syrian troops backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim Hezbollah militia have pushed into the town since the start of the offensive. Underlining its importance, Syria’s main opposition alliance, the Syrian National Coalition, on Wednesday urged rebel fighters from across Syria to converge on the town to help defend it.
Opposition fighters in Qusair were holding out Wednesday, but appeared to be under increasing strain as government tanks and artillery pounded the town and warplanes bombed it from the sky.
The battle has also raised Hezbollah’s profile in Syria’s civil war. The Lebanese militia, one of Assad’s staunchest allies, initially tried to play down its involvement to avoid political backlash at home, but could no longer do so after dozens of its fighters were killed in Qusair this week, followed by funerals drawing large crowds in Lebanon.
Most of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims back the Syria’s predominantly Sunni opposition, while Shiites support the Assad regime, which is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.
New sectarian clashes also occurred in Lebanon’s northern port city of Tripoli. Supporters and opponents of Assad have traded gunfire every day since Sunday, leaving 10 people dead and more than 100 wounded, Lebanese security officials said.
Kerry and Judeh both stressed that the alternative to peace talks in Syria is far worse.
“Let’s assume there is no Geneva 2,” Kerry said. “Let’s assume we don’t come together as community of nations to try to find a peaceful process.”
“What will happen? What will happen is an absolute guarantee that violence will continue and the world will be standing on the sidelines doing nothing constructive to try to end that violence. That’s unacceptable,” he said.
Judeh, whose country is currently hosting some 540,000 Syrian refugees, said: “Innocent blood shed every day in Syria and the destruction of culture and heritage puts on us a moral responsibility to help the Syrians achieve a political solution.”
The comments came a day after a U.S. Senate panel voted to provide weapons to the rebels, the first time American lawmakers have endorsed the aggressive U.S. military step of arming the opposition.
With a degree of trepidation, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 15-3 for a bill that would provide lethal assistance and military training to vetted rebel groups, and would slap sanctions on anyone — such as Iran or Russia — who sells oil or transfers arms to the Assad regime. The measure would also establish a $250 million fund to aid in the transition if and when Assad falls.