Barack Obama's administration announced on Aug. 1 that it is setting aside an additional $10 million in "non-lethal" military aid to the anti-Assad rebels in Syria on top of $15 million already committed. U.S. officials suggest that most of the aid will take the form of communications equipment such as encrypted radios. But just what exactly counts as "non-lethal" aid?
Anything that's not specifically designed to kill someone. Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which defines the role of the armed forces, describes "nonlethal supplies" as anything that "is not a weapon, ammunition, or other equipment or material that is designed to inflict serious bodily injury or death." In other words, communications equipment, medical supplies, intelligence assistance, body armor, and infrastructure are fine. Guns, ammunition, mines, and missiles are not. It's a vague definition but a legally significant one. With some restrictions -- such as on countries that use child soldiers, though that's not always a hard-and-fast rule -- non-lethal aid can be given to foreign military or law enforcement and drug interdiction agencies under Title 10 or Title 22, which pertains to State Department programs. Lethal aid falls under Title 50, which pertains to war and national defense and requires a full presidential finding and a briefing to congressional leaders.
But just because body armor doesn't actually kill people doesn't mean that it can't be an accessory to the act. Obviously, waging war entails a lot more than just shooting a gun, and the non-lethal aid can have results that are decidedly lethal. A radio transmitter can kill a lot more people than a rifle if, say, it's used to call in an airstrike or trigger an improvised explosive device. And a non-lethal truck quickly becomes a weapon when it's packed with explosives obtained elsewhere. Likewise, a surveillance drone may be designated a non-lethal object, but it can be easily weaponized. There are a lot of gray areas.
In addition to the legal distinction and lower bar for provision of non-lethal aid, there's also PR value. Given the uncertainty about the makeup of the rebel forces, the administration might want to emphasize the non-lethal nature of the aid in order to underline the fact that U.S. weapons won't be falling into the hands of terrorists. (It's a lot easier to tell a congressional panel down the line that you can't account for a few hundred radios rather than rocket-propelled grenades.) The administration also provided a similar level of "non-lethal" aid to the anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya last year. When the United States resumed military aid to Uzbekistan this year, despite its abysmal human rights record, the administration was quick to point out that it was "non-lethal."