May 23, 2013
US to give Syrian rebels medical, food aid, not arms
The United States will send non-lethal aid directly to Syrian rebels for the first time, Secretary of State John Kerry said, disappointing opponents of President Bashar al-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-defense".
More than 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 assistance.
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 communities.
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.
But the 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 Assad.
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 insurgents.