US to give Syrian rebels direct aid

The White House will provide non-lethal help in food and medical supplies to the opposition in Syria.

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LONDON // The US pledged on Thursday that it would for the first time provide direct assistance to Syrian rebel forces fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

The announcement came as foreign governments, members of the "Friends of Syria" that back the Syrian opposition, announced they would increase material support.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said after meeting members of the Syrian opposition in Rome that the US would double its aid by sending an extra $60 million (Dh220.4m) to help the opposition improve governance in areas under its control.

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

In a change of policy, the US will also provide non-lethal assistance directly to the Free Syrian Army in food and medical supplies, he said.

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), considered by the "Friends of Syria" as the sole representative of the opposition, welcomed the move as a "clear change and improvement" of the US position, even if it fell short of the "qualitative military support" they had demanded.

The fractious coalition was due to meet in Turkey this weekend to elect a prime minister and a government to run opposition-held areas.

But Samir Nashar, a prominent SNC member, said yesterday that Moaz Al Khatib, the coalition leader, had decided to delay the meeting.

Mr Nashar pointed to "US-Russian efforts to start a dialogue between the Syrian regime and the coalition that would result in a transitional government, and thus be at odds with an interim government".

He said disagreements within the SNC about whether to negotiate with the Assad regime was another reason for the delay.

More international support had been expected to be announced at the Istanbul meeting.

Meanwhile, rebels yesterday said they had captured the historic Umayyad mosque in Aleppo.

The mosque was damaged and its museum was on fire as rebel fighters forced government troops to retreat, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The opposition's inability to properly rule areas it has captured from government forces prompted the increase in international assistance announced yesterday.

Concern has grown in the US that militant Islamist groups are filling an aid vacuum by providing basic services in such areas.

"Some folks on the ground that we don't support and whose interests do not align with ours are delivering some of that help," Mr Kerry had said in Paris on Wednesday.

But the US has so far, at least publicly, insisted it would provide only non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition.

The White House is understood to be wary that US arms could wind up with groups such as Al Nusra, which has openly claimed affiliation with Al Qaeda.

The US administration is understood to be considering providing non-lethal military assistance such as night-vision goggles and body armour to opposition fighters, but the debate inside the US administration over how best to help the Syrian opposition is likely to continue.

Speaking after the summit, Mr Kerry said the decision to increase US support had been forced by events on the ground.

"The United States' decision to take further steps now is the result of the brutality of a superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hizbollah, all of which threatens to destroy Syria," he said.

He also reiterated the US position that Mr Al Assad had long lost legitimacy as Syria's ruler.

The final statement by the Friends of Syria blamed violence on the Assad government and condemned unnamed third countries - a group that would include Russia - for "unabated arms supply" to the Syrian regime.

"The regime must immediately stop the indiscriminate bombardment against populated areas, which are crimes against humanity and cannot remain unpunished," the statement added.

Britain and France, two countries that Mr Kerry visited before travelling to Italy, have signalled that they want to begin supplying the rebels with defensive military equipment such as combat body armour, armoured vehicles, night-vision goggles and training.

They are expected to make decisions on those items in the near future, in line with new guidance from the European Union.

The UN says more than 70,000 have been killed in an almost two-year uprising that began with peaceful demonstrations against the government for greater reforms, but soon descended into ever-worsening violence.

More than 850,000 Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, with the UN warning that number could pass 1 million by next month.

Millions have been displaced internally.