U.S. Plans To Offer More Direct Aid To Syrian Rebels

Secretary of State Kerry is in Rome for a meeting on Thursday with the leaders of Syria's opposition coalition. Ahead of the session, there are indications the U.S. is prepared to provide some direct aid to the coalition, including military hardware such as body armor and armored vehicles. The European Union is discussing similar aid.

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The Obama administration is rethinking its strategy in Syria. As the death toll mounts and a diplomatic solution seems out of reach, the administration is planning to do more to help Syrian rebels. That could involve what's referred to as direct, non-lethal assistance. It does not include weapons.

Secretary of State John Kerry is talking about all this in Rome with members of the Syrian opposition, and NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with him.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Syrian opposition figures had threatened to boycott the meeting in Rome because of what they see as the weak international response to the bloodshed in their country, but Secretary of State John Kerry convinced them to go and says he'll be listening closely to what they have to say.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: We want their advice on how we can accelerate the prospects of a political solution because that is what we believe is the best path to peace, the best way to protect the interest of the Syrian people, the best way to end the killing and the violence.

KELEMEN: And he says he knows that means the Syrian opposition, with help from its backers, need to change President Bashar al-Assad's current calculations.

KERRY: He needs to know that he can't shoot his way out of this. And so we need to convince him of that, and I think the opposition needs more help in order to be able to do that. And we are working together to have a united position with respect to that.

KELEMEN: Before coming to Rome, Kerry consulted with allies in London, Berlin and Paris. And everywhere, foreign ministers were calling the conflict in Syria, which has left more than 70,000 people dead, unbearable. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said international policy can't remain static. And today, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called for more active support to the Syrian Opposition Council, which France was the first to recognize.

LAURENT FABIUS: We have to make our best, all of us, in order to go towards a new period of time, because we agree, all of us, on the fact that Mr. Bashar al-Assad has to quit.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has been ruling out arming the rebels. The Europeans have cleared the way to provide non-lethal assistance to rebel fighters. Kerry is to offer an aid package when he sits down tomorrow with the head of the Syrian Opposition Council, Moaz al-Khatib. The new secretary of State says the U.S. will start funneling some of its aid directly through the council so that the opposition can show the Syrian people it is a realistic alternative to the Assad regime.

KERRY: We want to help the Syrian Opposition Council to better be able to meet the needs of the Syrian people. They've had difficulty doing that now. And some folks on the ground that we don't support and whose interests do not align with ours are delivering some of that help.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has been worried about the rise of jihadist forces in Syria and Kerry says he understands the U.S. needs to do a better job helping more moderate Syrian opposition forces provide basic services in liberated areas and protect, as he put it, the legitimate institutions of the state.

As the U.S. steps up its assistance, Kerry is also exploring oppositions for a diplomatic solution, though that seems remote. He met yesterday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to try to break the ice between the two countries over all sorts of issues.

KERRY: We're happy to see each other. We know each other and have had some good discussions.

KELEMEN: They spent an hour talking about Syria, according to U.S. officials, who described the meeting as a really serious and hard-working session. The U.S. has been trying to persuade Russia to stop supporting the Assad regime with armed shipments and diplomatic cover. Russia has been trying to convince the Syrian opposition to begin negotiations with Damascus.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Rome.

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