By Jamie Crawford
As the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues its relentless assault on the city of Homs, the United States says it is still too soon to determine how a humanitarian aid package could be effectively delivered to those who need it.
"We're not prepared to speak about what the delivery options might be," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday at a daily briefing with reporters. "We have quite a bit of work to do with other governments, so I'm not going to speculate."
After a Russian and Chinese veto of a United Nations resolution aimed at stabilizing the situation in Syria, the United States is working to create a mechanism, possibly outside the U.N. Security Council, that could best serve besieged areas of Syria.
One such option would be a "Friends of Syria" contact group of U.S. allies and partners who support a free and democratic Syria, Nuland said. The group would support the Arab League plan on Syria that served as the basis for the failed U.N. resolution.
A meeting "may be held in the near future," White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a White House briefing on Wednesday. For now, the United States is pursuing a "political solution" while considering humanitarian assistance.
While the United States is not ruling out providing humanitarian aid unilaterally, "we're working with our partners," Carney said.
But before any discussion begins on what kind of aid may be extended, the United States is consulting with individual countries about what such a group could do, who would join, who would be eligible for aid, and even where the group would meet.
"We on the U.S. side have already been looking at what we can do to prepare ourselves on both the financial and legal side(s) so that we're ready to provide humanitarian aid, such as food and medicine," Nuland said. "But we're going to have to work with our international partners, we're going to have to work with neighboring states to identify coordinators on the ground who could assist in receiving this aid and in distributing it."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona said more needs to be considered. McCain has been vocal in calling for the Syrian rebels to be given more arms. In an interview to air Thursday on CNN's "John King, USA," the Republican senator said "peaceful means" have been exhausted, and other options need to be considered.
"We could do things by providing them with intelligence information, with satellite information, with information on the movements of the Syrian armed forces," McCain insisted in the interview, adding that the United States and allies could provide medical help as well as work with Turkey to provide refuge for fleeing Syrians.
Some longtime Syria watchers say that so long as the Assad regime continues its attacks, getting humanitarian aid to those who need it most will be difficult.
Delivering aid is "virtually impossible without the consent of the Syrian government or a formidable armed military from outside coming in to safeguard any convoys of the like," Ted Kattouf, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, told CNN.
Assad is "going to try and do everything in his power to bring the fighting to an end through sheer force, and so, no, I don't see any humanitarian aid getting in at this point," Kattouf said.
And with Syria's more heterogeneous and mixed population centers, establishing a safe haven, like the city of Benghazi during the Libyan uprising, is extremely difficult.
While there have been instances in the past where humanitarian assistance was sent into hostile areas by land, sea or air, nothing appears to be imminent.
"Frankly, we are not at the stage of ventilating options," Nuland said while being careful not to define the mission of any group before its creation.
The group would also look at how its members could tighten sanctions against the Assad regime to their fullest extent, Nuland said.
Turkey, which has been harsh in its criticism of the Assad regime, has offered to host a meeting of a Syrian contact group if it is formed. That is likely to be part of a larger discussion on Syria next week when the Turkish foreign minister meets with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington.