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US to send rations, medical supplies to Syrian rebels but not weapons

ROME — In a policy shift, the United States on Thursday announced plans to send military rations and medical supplies directly to Syrian opposition fighters, but fell short of providing weapons and ammunition that the rebels had been asking for.

"The simple fact is (Syrian President Bashar) Assad cannot shoot his way out of this," Secretary of State John Kerry said after his first meeting with Syrian opposition leaders in Rome. "For more than a year the U.S. and our partners who have gathered here in Rome have called on Assad to heed the voice of the Syrian people and halt his war machine. Instead what we have seen is his brutality increase."

For the first time, the U.S. will supply the Free Syrian Army with food for fighters on the ground and medical supplies for the wounded.

Kerry also announced $60 million in new aid to help the Syrian Opposition Coalition deliver basic goods and services, including security, sanitation, and education, to communities that the rebels control.  The aid is intended to help counteract the influence of radical fighters.

The U.S. will also send "technical advisers" to support opposition staff in Egypt in implementing the assistance and ensure that it gets to the right people. The U.S. plan, forged with European allies, will not include weapons despite the calls of a growing number of American senators and members of the Syrian opposition.

When he was still a senator, John Kerry recommended looking into potentially arming the opposition and setting up safe zones inside the country. His predecessor, Secretary Hillary Clinton and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also both urged last year that vetted units of the rebel force be armed and trained. 

Disappointed opposition?

The announcement is sure to also disappoint opponents of the Syrian regime who have been asking for weapons.  Frustration with the West's stance had prompted the opposition coalition to say last week that it would boycott the Rome talks. It changed its mind under U.S. pressure.

An unnamed European diplomat who spoke to Reuters held out the prospect of possible Western military support, saying the coalition and its Western and Arab backers would meet in Istanbul next week to discuss military and humanitarian support to the rebels.  

Kerry, who is in Europe on his first foreign trip in his new position, has said that Washington is looking for new ways to help rebels fighting Assad's government and speed up political transition in the country. 

"We are working and will continue to work closely with the Syrian Opposition Coalition and our international partners in order to make sure that the assistance we give reaches who need it and that we want to have receive it, even those who are trapped in some of the hard to reach areas," Kerry said.

The West and Syria's neighbors have been looking for a solution to the two-year-old civil war in Syria that has claimed approximately 70,000 lives, forced at least 2.5 million people from their homes, and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing into neighboring countries.  The conflict also threatens to destabilize the region, in particular neighboring Lebanon.

U.S. policymakers also are trying to make sure the aid does not fall into the hands of al-Qaida sympathizers fighting with the rebels.

A senior State Department official told NBC News on Thursday:

"We are concerned that we have extremists operating in and among the opposition who don't share the goals of a future Syria that is democratic, that's united, that is just, and that respects the human rights of all Syrians citizens and provides for all of them. So those members of the opposition that support our shared values need to be able to demonstrate that they can deliver a better day and need to set an example of a Syria where daily life is governed neither by the brutality of the Assad regime nor by the agenda of al-Qaida affiliated extremists."

Hardline groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham have already waged some of the deadliest attacks in Syria, including car bombings in Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere. Their ranks have been swollen by jihadi fighters from around the Muslim world.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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