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The U.S. ambassador to Syria, who's been outside of that country for some time because of the civil war, made a secret trip into northern Syria on Wednesday. Robert Ford crossed into rebel-held territory at the Bab al-Salama crossing of the Turkish frontier. It's a high-profile gesture to Syrian rebels. And it's also a kind of statement to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, since Ford did not ask the government's permission to come.
Syrian activists confirmed this visit to NPR's Deborah Amos, who's in Turkey and is on the line. Hi, Deborah.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Why was Ford's visit secret and why would he make it now?
AMOS: Well, it was supposed to be secret, but very little in Syria stays secret because of this army of media activists. Journalists and aid workers cross that border all the time, but the U.S. still officially recognizes the Syrian government in Damascus. So as you say, he had no permission. Now, Ford has made other high-profile diplomatic gestures when he was the U.S. ambassador to Syria. He went to a protest town, Hama, in 2011.
This time it seems that Ford's gesture is in support of moderate rebels. It's to bolster a defected general named Salim Idriss, who heads something called the Supreme Military Command. A day before Ford's visit, the U.S. delivered seven truckloads of MREs - those are the U.S. military battle rations - about 65,000 MREs.
INSKEEP: Moderate rebels, you said. We should explain that. There are a lot of rebel groups in Syria about which the United States and others have grave concerns because of their links to more radical Islamist organizations.
AMOS: Indeed, and in April, in a meeting in Istanbul, the United States and other allies agreed that they would channel aid to the rebels through General Idriss and support this moderate wing against Islamist extremists fighting the regime. And so this package of aid was in support of Idriss.
INSKEEP: And it isn't the mechanics of this also different because this aid is not going through the Syrian government in Damascus?
AMOS: Much of U.S. aid - the humanitarian aid - goes to the government because it goes through the United Nations system. So it goes to Jordan, it goes Lebanon, it goes to the government in Syria. So far the Syrian government has prohibited what's known as cross-border aid. And that means that you can't move aid across the border from Turkey or from Jordan into rebel-held areas, which would be the quickest, the safest, the cheapest way to do it. It's really a sovereignty question.
INSKEEP: But they're still, Deborah Amos, just meals. Is the United States providing anything more lethal?
AMOS: They are not. However, the United States is also urging its allies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to also channel lethal aid through General Salim Idriss. The whole idea of this policy is to try to choke out the radicals on the battlefield, not an easy thing to do because they have their own channels of support. They're also very well-trained, have been able to take down Syrian military bases and collect arms on their own.
INSKEEP: Any other aid going to the rebels at this time?
AMOS: There is indeed. And you can find it on the USAID website. The U.S. is providing flour. Medical supplies are going into northern Syria. This is a unbranded, as they say in America, operation. There's no American flags on it, but there are five international NGOs using USAID funds to move humanitarian aid into northern Syria.
INSKEEP: NPR's Deborah Amos is in Gaziantep, Turkey. Deborah, thanks very much
AMOS: Thank you.
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