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US, allies planning direct aid to Syrian rebels

In a policy shift, the United States on Thursday will announce plans to channel aid directly to selected groups of the Syrian opposition rather than through non-governmental agencies, senior White House officials told NBC News.

The aid plan, being forged with European allies, will still not include weapons, despite the calls of a growing number of American senators — but the definition of "non-lethal" aid will be more broadly defined, the officials said, noting that details of the plan were still being finalized.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is in Paris on his first foreign trip in his new position, said earlier that Washington is looking for new ways to help rebels fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and speed up political transition in the country.

"We are examining and developing ways to accelerate the transition the Syrian people seek and deserve," Kerry said during a news conference with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

The Washington Post has reported that the administration was planning to start sending non-lethal equipment like body armor and armed vehicles to Assad's foes.

Among the items likely to be included in the direct aid to rebels are meals and medical kits, The Associated Press reported.

Kerry was expected to announce the new contributions at the Rome conference, in addition to tens of millions of dollars intended for rule of law and governance programs.

For its part, the Syrian opposition is planning to demand "qualitative military support" at talks with major powers in Rome this week, a leading figure in movement to oust Assad told Reuters on Wednesday.

"We ask our friends to give us every backing to achieve gains on the ground and help reach a political solution from a position of strength, not weakness," said Riad Seif of the Syrian National Coalition umbrella group said a day before a Friends of Syria conference in the Italian capital.

"We expect to receive political, humanitarian and qualitative military support,” he said.

The Friends of Syria group is composed mainly of Western powers, Gulf Arab states opposed to the Iranian-backed Assad, and Turkey.

The West and Syria's neighbors have been looking for a solution to the two-year-old civil war in Syria that has claimed around 70,000 lives and sent 860,000 refugees fleeing abroad. The conflict pitting the largely Sunni rebels against the Alawite-dominated Assad government threatens to destabilize countries in the region, most notably Lebanon.

In Paris, Kerry said the United States wanted the Syrian opposition's advice on how to accelerate a political solution to help halt the bloodshed and protect the interests of the Syrian people.

"We want (the Syrian opposition's) 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," he said ahead of meetings with the opposition on Thursday.

"As I have said, that may require us to change President al-Assad's current calculation. He needs to know that he can't shoot his way out of this. 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," Kerry added. 

But Iraq's prime minister warned that a victory for the rebels in Syria would create new problems, by creating a haven for extremists and worsening sectarian tensions in the Middle East.

In an interview with the AP, Nouri al-Maliki stopped shy of expressing support for the Assad regime.

The prime minister's remarks reflect fears by many Shiite Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere that Sunni Muslims would come to dominate Syria should Assad be toppled.

"If the world does not agree to support a peaceful solution through dialogue ... then I see no light at the end of the tunnel," al-Maliki said.

"Neither the opposition nor the regime can finish each other off," he continued. "The most dangerous thing in this process is that if the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq."

As the bloody Syrian conflict wears on, there is a growing number of U.S. legislators urging greater action, including some type of military support for the rebels.

Sen. Roger Wicker, a member of the Armed Services Committee, appearing on NBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports on Wednesday.

"I hope our new secretary of state will listen carefully to the more responsible of the Syrian opposition," said Wicker, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Asked if that meant the United States should provide weapons, he said: "I think there are ways and means for us to see that is done. I think Secretary of State Kerry is going to be listening to those proposals, and I think if he does what he's being told at the highest levels of the Pentagon, we may be moving, yes, to military aid for the responsible opposition groups."

He agreed that there is a risk to those weapons falling into the hands of radical extremists infiltrating the opposition movement, but said.

"There's no question it's a concern, but this has gone on too long. The Assad regime needs to fall."

Andrea Mitchell is NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent. Catherine Chomiak is an NBC News producer. Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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