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Kerry promises non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels

US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) with Friends of Syria officials in Italy today.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) with Friends of Syria officials in Italy today.

ROME — 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.

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 to help provide security.

Extend supplies

The United States would now “extend food and medical supplies to the opposition, including to the Syrian opposition’s Supreme Military (Council),” 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.

Modest US policy shift

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 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. (Reuters)

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