WASHINGTON -- For the first time in the two-year push to topple President Bashar Assad, the United States said Thursday that it will send food and medicine directly to armed Syrian rebels.
But the announcement fell far short of rebel calls for anti-aircraft missiles and imposition of a no-fly zone, and it left many opposition members dissatisfied.
Even a European agreement to amend its arms embargo to allow rebels access to non-lethal military equipment and armored vehicles on condition that they be used only to protect civilians failed to calm their anger.
"Unfortunately, as always, the West's promises are smaller than its actions," said Aleppo businessman Samir Nashar, a founding member of the Syrian Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, the umbrella group set up last year at the United States' behest. "How will armored cars protect us from Scud missiles and barrel bombs?" he asked. "The U.S. said it would provide food and medicine to the revolutionaries by plane. We always hear words and no actions. I think it's a policy aimed to manage the crisis, not to help the Free Syrian Army on the ground."
Speaking in Rome, where U.S. allies met with Syrian opposition leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. support should not be taken in isolation. "Different countries are choosing to do different things, and we make this evaluation based on the whole," Mr. Kerry said. "I am absolutely confident, from what I heard in there from other foreign ministers, that the totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals."
The meeting included foreign ministers from Turkey, France, Germany, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. None of those nations announced specific new plans to aid the anti-Assad opposition, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already believed to be providing weapons and ammunition.
Mr. Kerry said the new U.S. aid would go to the Supreme Military Command, the armed wing of the opposition coalition. Separate from the rebels' aid, Mr. Kerry said, the coalition would receive $60 million in direct U.S. assistance in an attempt to help the group organize itself and appoint a transitional government-in-waiting. So far, that's been a difficult task, as members fight over their competing visions of a post-Assad Syria.
Despite the aid pledge, the coalition canceled a meeting to select a new government that had been set for Saturday. There was no explanation why.
The U.S. decision to supply the rebels with nonlethal aid moves its policy a notch beyond the Obama administration's longtime stance of backing only the political and nonviolent opposition.
But it is unlikely to bring a quick end to the conflict, which has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives since its March 2011 start.