Syria conflict: John Kerry extends US aid to rebels

People search rubble for bodies in an area of Aleppo reportedly destroyed by a government missile strike The escalating carnage in Syria has increased pressure for western intervention

The US is to step up its support for the Syrian opposition as it fights to topple President Bashar al-Assad, Secretary of State John Kerry says.

Mr Kerry said the US would provide direct support to rebel forces in the form of medical and food supplies.

He also promised an additional $60m (£40m) in aid to the opposition to help it deliver basic governance and other services in rebel-controlled areas.

Mr Kerry was speaking at a gathering of the Friends of Syria group in Rome.

On Friday he is travelling to Ankara to discuss the Syria crisis with top Turkish officials.

'Out of time'

The promise of direct, non-lethal aid to the rebels represents a shift in US policy on Syria, correspondents say.

John Kerry: "This funding will allow the opposition... to be able to rebuild"

However it falls short of providing the weapons and munitions that the rebels say they need to defeat government forces.

Mr Kerry said the decision was designed to increase the pressure on President Assad to step down and allow a democratic transition.

"The US decision to take further steps now is the result of the brutality of superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah.

"President Assad is out of time and must be out of power," said Mr Kerry, adding that the Syrian leader could not "shoot his way out" of the situation.

The $60m in aid to the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) represents a doubling of US support.

It was intended to help the opposition deliver governance and basic services in rebel-controlled areas, said Mr Kerry.

"As the regime continues to lose ground it will help the opposition extend stability and build representative government and the rule of law," he added.

The signals are clear. Diplomatic patience is running out and the international calculus is slowly shifting.

The debate on arming the Syrian opposition is not going to go away. Non-lethal military aid looks to be the next step for some governments.

The problem is that the arming debate is no simple one. More weapons may even up the contest but equally could increase the bloodshed in the short term.

How could weapons be kept out of the hands of extremist Islamist groups? And is it really true, as some have argued, that supplying weaponry will boost the influence of Western governments among groups that will have a key role in any post-Assad Syria?

One reason the diplomatic clock has been moving so slowly is, in fairness, that while terrible events have been taking place on the ground, there are probably no easy diplomatic answers to be found.

Frustration forces Western shift on Syria

After the meeting, the European Union announced changes to its arms embargo on Syria, allowing EU states to provide armoured vehicles, non-lethal military equipment and technical aid to the rebels, but not weapons.

At the meeting with Mr Kerry, leader of the SNC, Moaz al-Khatib, said he was still frustrated by the lack of military help for rebel fighters.

He initially refused to attend the Rome talks in protest at a lack of international support for the Syrian rebels, but was persuaded after the US and UK indicated there would be specific promises of aid.

Mosque 'captured'

Speaking at the meeting Mr Khatib called on President Assad to make "one wise decision in your life" and stand down "for the future of your country".

Earlier this month he also suggested for the first time that talks with the Assad government might be possible, though that suggestion remains controversial among opposition groups.

The SNC says it plans to set up a government to administer rebel-held areas of Syria, primarily in the north of the country close to the Turkish border.

But a meeting to select the prime minister, scheduled for the weekend, was unexpectedly postponed on Thursday, and no new date has been set.

Meanwhile fighting in Syria continues and the humanitarian situation is worsening.

In the latest fighting, rebel forces have captured the historic Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, according to an activist group.

The mosque was damaged and its museum caught fire as rebels forced government troops to withdraw, UK-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Fighting also raged elsewhere in Aleppo's old city, including near the Palace of Justice, it added.

'New phase'

Aleppo - Syria's second city - has been a key battleground in the conflict.

Mr Kerry highlighted the fate of the city in his address, accusing President Assad of engaging in "ruthless attacks" with Scud missiles against rebel-held areas.

According to UN estimates, more than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria since the revolt against President Assad began nearly two years ago.

Opposition fighters have been constantly outgunned as President Assad's forces deploy tanks, aircraft and missiles against them.

Syrian rebel with an RPG launcher. The Syrian rebels say weapons and ammunition are what they need most

The UN's refugees agency says the number of Syrians who have fled the conflict into neighbouring countries is now approaching one million, while two million have been internally displaced.

The World Health Organisation has warned of disease outbreaks and worsening medical services.

Earlier, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said the Friends of Syria were determined to "ramp up" assistance to the opposition.

"We are entering a new phase in the response of Western and Arab nations to the crisis in Syria," he said.

The Friends of Syria organisation has broad international support, but does not include Syrian allies Russia and China.

On Thursday Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks on Syria with his French counterpart Francois Hollande.

He conceded that there were differences in the positions of Russia and France, but said both had agreed that Syria should not be allowed to break apart as a result of the conflict.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 487.

    - 485 The shia-sunni hate & blood lust divide into the 21st century is over NOTHING MORE than a Grandson of Muhammad, imam Hussein getting into a fight, for HE wanted to keep the wealth and power in family (himself) against a more democratically minded group who also wanted a chance at being the caliph. Hussein LOST and was killed and so the HATE began. What happened to Inshallah ? God willing !

  • rate this

    Comment number 486.

    They have been fighting for about 1400yrs, so why do we think we can change their destiny. This is a loose-loose propisition. Kerry is trying to make up for his pathetic past.

  • rate this

    Comment number 485.

    Why are the rebels so upset with the west for not helping more ? We are after all infidels that muslims are constantly taught to hate and to take over their lands for islam. The arab muslim oil states have so much wealth and so much common brotherly history. With a bit of co-operation planning and determination a combined arab effort could have mediated or fought this to end almost 2 years ago

  • rate this

    Comment number 484.

    John Kerry is speaking nonsense. "Non lethal aid" is one of those squirmy politically correct jokes that pacify those who are too afraid to take a stand on anything. Why don't we send the opposition what the Russians are sending Assad? That would create the parity this abominable murderous circumstance needs to be resolved. Kerry is embarrassingly behaving like a wimpy 1960's "peace-nik".

  • rate this

    Comment number 483.

    The Syrian rebels are the henchmen of Al Qaeda aided and abetted by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They are Sunnis and Syrians are Shias - always at loggerheads. US is committing a grave error as its aid would be tantamount to helping the Qaeda elements.


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