ROME - The United States will send non-lethal aid directly to
Syrian rebels for the first time, Secretary of State John Kerry said on
Thursday, disappointing opponents of President Bashar Assad who are
clamoring for Western weapons.
But in a change of emphasis, the mainly
Western and Arab "Friends of Syria" group meeting in Rome "underlined the need
to change the balance of power on the ground".
A final communique said
participants would "coordinate their efforts closely so as to best empower the
Syrian people and support the Supreme Military Command of the (rebel) Free
Syrian Army in its efforts to help them exercise self-defence".
70,000 Syrians have been killed in a fierce 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
Kerry, after the talks in Rome, said Washington would more
than double its aid to the Syrian civilian opposition, giving it an extra $60
million to help provide food, sanitation and medical care to devastated
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 communique, the "Friends of
Syria" pledged more political and material support to the Syrian National
Coalition, a fractious Cairo-based group that has struggled to gain traction
inside Syria, especially among disparate rebel forces.
Riad Seif, a
coalition leader, said before the Rome meeting that the opposition would demand
"qualitative military support".
Another coalition official welcomed the
result of the talks. "We move forward with a great deal of cautious optimism. We
heard today a different kind of discourse," Yasser Tabbara said.
continued U.S. refusal to send weapons may compound the frustration that
prompted the coalition to say last week it would shun the Rome talks. It
attended only under U.S. 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
However, a European diplomat held out the possibility of 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
Meals ready to eat
Kerry's offer of medical aid and Meals
Ready to Eat (MREs), the U.S. army's basic ration, fell far short of rebel
demands for sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to help turn the
tables against 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
Last week the European Union opened the way for direct aid to
Syrian rebels, but did not lift an arms embargo on Syria.
The Rome talks
again signaled the lack of appetite among the United States and its allies for
direct military intervention in Syria, after the withdrawal of US-led troops
from Iraq and the draw-down under way in Afghanistan.
called for an immediate halt to "unabated" arms supplies to Damascus by third
countries, referring mostly to Assad's allies Russia and Iran.
said Syria must immediately stop indiscriminate bombardment of populated areas,
which it described as crimes against humanity. NATO officials say Assad's
military has fired ballistic missiles within Syria, which the government
Human Rights Watch has reported that at least 171 civilians were
killed in four Scud missile strikes last week.
The "Friends of Syria"
pledged "more political and material support to the coalition as the sole
legitimate representative of the Syrian people and to get more concrete
assistance inside Syria", but gave no details on exactly what would be
Kerry said earlier this week he would not leave the Syrian
opposition "dangling in the wind", unsure of getting support.
White House continues to resist providing weaponry to the rebel forces, arguing
there is no way to guarantee the arms might not fall into the hands of Islamist
militants who might eventually use them against Western or Israeli
US officials have said that the US Defense and
State departments, under former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, privately recommended that the White House
arm the rebels, but were overruled.
"It's a huge debate inside the
administration between those that have to deal with Syria on an everyday basis,
the State Department and DoD (Defense) particularly, and the White House, which
... until now has vetoed any kind of outreach to the armed groups," said Andrew
Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a
The United States says it has already provided more than $50
million in non-lethal assistance such as communications gear and governance
training to Syria's civilian opposition.
A source in the Syrian
coalition, however, said even the extra $60 million promised by Washington was a
pittance compared to what he said was the $40 million a day in humanitarian aid
needed for Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons.
States has provided some $365 million in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in
countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and for internally displaced
people, channelling this money through non-governmental
More than 40,000 people a week are fleeing Syria and the
total number of refugees will likely pass 1 million in less than a month, far
sooner than the United Nations had forecast, a senior U.N. official told the
Security Council on Wednesday.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees
António Guterres said his agency had registered 936,000 Syrians across the
Middle East and North Africa, nearly 30 times as many as in April last
"We expected to have 1.1 million Syrian refugees by June. If things
continue to accelerate like this, it will take less than a month to reach that
number," he told the 15-member council.