US agrees to aid Syria rebels
US secretary of state John Kerry (left) smiles next to Italian foreign minister Giulio Terzi, and Syrian National Coalition president Mouaz al-Khatib during a group photocall during meetings at Villa Madama in Rome. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/Pool
The United States will send non-lethal aid directly to Syrian rebels for the first time, secretary of state John Kerry said today, disappointing opponents of president Bashar al-Assad who are demanding Western weapons.
More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in a devastating conflict that began with peaceful anti-Assad protests nearly two years ago. Some 860,000 have fled abroad and several million are displaced within the country or need humanitarian assistance.
Mr Kerry, speaking in Rome after a meeting of the mainly western and Arab "Friends of Syria" group, said his country would more than double its aid to the Syrian civilian opposition, giving it an extra $60 million (€45.7 million) to help provide security.
The US would now "extend food and medical supplies to the opposition, including to the Syrian opposition's Supreme Military [Council]", Mr Kerry said.
In their final statement, the Friends of Syria pledged more political and material support to the opposition Syrian National Coalition, a fractious group that has struggled to gain traction inside Syria, especially among disparate rebel forces.
Riad Seif, a coalition leader, said on the eve of the Rome talks that it would demand "qualitative military support", though another coalition official welcomed the shift in the US stance.
"We move forward with a great deal of cautious optimism," said Yasser Tabbara. "We heard today a different kind of discourse," he said, adding the opposition need military and political support.
The modest US policy shift may compound the frustration that had prompted the coalition to declare last week it would boycott the Rome talks. It changed its mind under US pressure.
Many in the coalition say western reluctance to arm rebels only plays into the hands of Islamist militants now widely seen as the most effective forces in the struggle to topple Dr Assad.
However, a European diplomat held out the prospect of possible western military support, saying the coalition and its western and Arab backers would meet in Istanbul next week to discuss military and humanitarian support to the rebels.
Mr Kerry's offer of medical aid and meals ready to eat (MREs), the US army's basic ration, fell far short of rebel demands for sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to help tip the balance against Dr Assad's mostly Russian-supplied forces.
It also stopped short of providing other forms of non-lethal assistance such as bullet-proof vests, armoured personnel vehicles and military training to the insurgents.
The Rome talks were the latest evidence that the US and its allies have no appetite for military intervention in Syria, after the withdrawal of US-led troops from Iraq and the draw-down under way in Afghanistan.
The final communique called for an immediate halt to "unabated" arms supplies to Damascus by third countries, referring mostly to Dr Assad's allies Russia and Iran.