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US pledges more aid, not arms, to Syrian opposition

Kerry's announcement marks a policy shift on the part of the United States, but it still disappointed opponents of President Bashar al-Assad who are demanding Western weapons. But a European diplomat held out the prospect of possible Western military support, saying the coalition and its Western and Arab backers would meet in İstanbul next week to discuss military and humanitarian support to the opposition fighters. “The meeting aims to work directly with opposition structures to increase the level of support,” the diplomat said, adding that both civilian and military representatives of the Syrian opposition would attend. Kerry, speaking in Rome after a meeting of the mainly Western and Arab “Friends of Syria” group that was attended by representatives from 11 countries, said his country would more than double its aid to the Syrian civilian opposition, giving it an extra $60 million to help provide security. The United States would now “extend food and medical supplies to the opposition, including to the Syrian opposition's Supreme Military [Council],” Kerry said.

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.

During a meeting ahead of the Friends of Syria meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, his Qatari counterpart and Mouaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, had agreed that the Rome talks should produce a result that would make the coalition's decision to give up on its boycott decision “worthwhile,” according to the Anatolia news agency. Davutoğlu represented Turkey, a staunch supporter of the opposition, at the Friends of Syria meeting

In their final statement, the Friends of Syria pledged more political and material support to the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

In a joint statement released by the Italian Foreign Ministry, the participants of the meeting said they had agreed in Rome on “the need to change the balance of power on the ground.” It said the countries represented “will coordinate their efforts closely so as to best empower the Syrian people and support the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army in its efforts to help them exercise self-defense.”

Kerry's offer of medical aid and Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), the US army's basic ration, fell far short of opposition demands for sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to help tip the balance against Assad's mostly Russian-supplied forces.

It also stopped short of providing other forms of non-lethal assistance such as bullet-proof vests, armored personnel vehicles and military training to the insurgents.

The Rome talks were the latest evidence that the United States and its allies have no appetite for military intervention in Syria, after the withdrawal of US-led troops from Iraq and the drawdown under way in Afghanistan.

The final communiqué called for an immediate halt to “unabated” arms supplies to Damascus by third countries, referring mostly to Assad's allies Russia and Iran.

It also 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 denies.

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 provided.

Kerry said earlier this week he would not leave the Syrian opposition “dangling in the wind” unsure of getting support.

But the White House continues to resist providing weaponry to the opposition forces, arguing there was no way to guarantee the arms might not fall into the hands of militants who might eventually use them against Western or Israeli targets.

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 opposition 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 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 think tank in the US capital.

The United States says it has already provided more than $50 million in non-lethal assistance such as communications gear and governance training to the 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.

The United 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, channeling this money through non-governmental organizations.

Opposition postpones meeting in İstanbul to elect PM

 

Meanwhile, Syria's political opposition has postponed a meeting scheduled for Saturday in İstanbul to choose a prime minister to head a provisional government, Mohammad Sarmini of the Syrian National Council said on Thursday.

 

"The meeting may be held later in the week," he told Reuters by telephone. Opposition leaders had hoped to elect a prime minister to operate in opposition-controlled areas of Syria, threatened by a slide into chaos.

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