U.S. to double non-lethal aid to rebels battling Syrian regime

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ISTANBUL -- The United States said today that it will double its non-lethal assistance to Syria's opposition as the rebels' top supporters vowed to enhance and expand their backing of the two-year battle to oust President Bashar Assad's regime.

Yet the pledge fell far short of what the opposition had made clear it wanted: weapons and direct military intervention to stop the violence that has killed more than 70,000 people. The Syrian National Coalition had sought drone strikes on sites from which the regime has fired missiles, the imposition of no-fly zones and protected humanitarian corridors to ensure the safety of civilians.

Instead, the Obama administration's pledged to provide an additional $123 million in aid, which may include for the first time armored vehicles, body armor, night vision goggles and other defensive military supplies. It was the only tangible, public offer of new international support as the foreign ministers of the 11 main countries supporting the opposition met in a marathon session in Istanbul.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the new package of assistance in a written statement at the conclusion of the conference that began Saturday afternoon and stretched into early today.

The additional aid, which brings total non-lethal U.S. assistance to the opposition to $250 million since the fighting began, "underscores the United States' firm support for a political solution to the crisis in Syria and for the opposition's advancement of an inclusive, tolerant vision for a post-Assad Syria," he said.

Mr. Kerry said a portion of the new money would be used to follow through on President Barack Obama's recent authorization to expand direct supplies to the Free Syrian Army beyond food and medical supplies to include defensive items.

Mr. Kerry also announced nearly $25 million in additional food assistance for Syrians who remain inside the country as well as those who have fled to neighboring countries, bringing the total U.S. humanitarian contribution to the crisis to more than $409 million.

While pleased with the U.S. moves, the opposition appeared deeply disappointed, especially as it lost some ground in the latest clashes with Syrian troops backed by pro-government gunmen capturing at least one village in a strategic area near the Lebanese border.

"We appreciate the limited support given by the international community, but it is not sufficient," it said in a statement released at the end of the conference.

Ahead of the meeting, the opposition said it wanted guns and ammunition. And, it said it wanted its friends to conduct drone strikes on Syrian territory to take out Mr. Assad's missile capabilities and renewed appeals for the creation of no-fly zones and safe corridors.

But none of those calls were specifically addressed by the foreign ministers in a joint statement of their own. Instead, they referred only to their recognition of the "need to change the balance of power on the ground." They said they would welcome additional pledges and commitments to the Free Syrian Army and delegated the rebels' Supreme Military Council to be the conduit for all military aid.

European nations are considering changes to an arms embargo that would allow weapons transfers to the Syrian opposition. But European Union action is unlikely before the current embargo is set to expire in late May.

Britain and France have been leading the calls to amend the embargo to test the strategy that merely giving its members permission to supply arms may cause Mr. Assad to rethink his calculation to hold on to power. But some in the EU, notably Germany and the Netherlands, are reluctant, believing that more weapons flowing into Syria will only increase the bloodshed and that they could fall into the hands of extremists.

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