Syrian rebels to start getting direct U.S. aid

The Obama administration has announced that it will provide the Syrian opposition directly with an additional $60 million in assistance and will for the first time provide nonlethal aid.

Opposition to also receive support from Europe, including military hardware

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks to Syrian opposition coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib, during the international conference on Syria at Villa Madama, Rome. (Riccardo De Luca/Associated Press)

The Obama administration has announced that it will provide the Syrian opposition directly with an additional $60 million in assistance and will for the first time provide nonlethal aid to rebels battling to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the new support and the decision to back the rebel fighters on the sidelines of an international conference on Syria in Rome on Thursday.

"No nation, no people should live in fear of their so-called leaders," Kerry said.

He said the U.S. decision is designed to increase the pressure on Assad to step down and pave the way for a democratic transition. The aid is also intended to help the opposition govern newly liberated areas of Syria and blunt the influence of extremists.

Kerry said Assad "is out of time and must be out of power. For more than a year, the United States and our partners have called on Assad to heed the voice of the Syrian people and to halt his war machine," Kerry said. "Instead, what we have seen is his brutality increase."

Kerry added, "The United States' decision to take further steps now is the result of the brutality of superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah."

Europe supplies military equipment

Britain and France, two countries that Kerry visited before travelling to Italy on his first official trip as secretary of state, have signalled that they want to begin supplying the rebels with defensive military equipment such as combat body armour, armoured vehicles, night vision goggles and training. They are expected to make decisions on those items in the near future, in line with new guidance from the European Union, which still bars the provision of weapons and ammunition to anyone in Syria.

"We must go above and beyond the efforts we are making now," said Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi, who hosted the conference. "We can no longer allow this massacre to continue."

Appearing beside Terzi and Kerry, the leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, demanded for Assad to stop the brutality of his forces that have in recent days launched scud missile attacks on the city of Aleppo that have been roundly condemned by much of the Western and Arab world.

"Bashar Assad, for once in your life, behave as a human being," Khatib said. "Bashar Assad, you have to make at least one wise decision in your life for the future of your country."

The opposition has been appealing for some time for the international community to boost its support and to provide its military wing with lethal assistance, and while al-Khatib did not mention those requests, he pointedly made no reference to the new assistance that Kerry announced. Instead, he urged outside nations to support the creation of protected humanitarian corridors inside Syria, which the foreign ministers said they had "positively considered" but made no decisions.

Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, said the Syrian people have every right to feel "bitter" at the world's inaction even while "the scuds rain down on Aleppo" and expressed dissatisfaction with the aid announced by Kerry.

"We would have wished to receive a means with which to protect the innocent civilians dying from the regime's warplanes and scud missiles, but unfortunately, that was not even on the table," he said by telephone from Budapest.

Concerns about Syrian opposition

Washington has already provided $385 million in humanitarian aid to Syria's population and $54 million in communications equipment, medical supplies, vehicles, armour and training to Syria's political opposition. The U.S. also has screened rebel groups for Turkey and American allies in the Arab world that have armed rebel fighters.

But until now, no U.S. dollars or provisions have gone directly to rebel fighters, reflecting concerns about forces that have allied themselves with more extremist elements since Assad's initial crackdown on peaceful protesters in March 2011.

A peace activist protests what she said is the killing of innocent civilians by countries including the U.S. and Italy. (Riccardo De Luca/Associated Press)

The $60 million will go to Assad's political opposition. U.S. officials said the rations will be delivered to the rebels through their military council, and is to be distributed only to vetted members of the Free Syrian Army.

The U.S. will be sending technical advisers to the Syrian National Coalition offices in Cairo to oversee and help them spend the money for good governance and rule of law. The advisers will be from non-governmental organizations and other groups that do this kind of work.

Dr Christopher Phillips, a Middle East fellow with the British think-tank Chatham House, told CBC News that the U.S. decision to deliver nonlethal aid does not mark a major difference in U.S. policy.

"They want to show their support for the rebels without giving them the arms. It's not going to make any difference — this will not help the rebels win the war. They are signs of support but not decisive support."

If Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which continue to supply arms to the rebels, see the U.S. move as an endorsement — or as encouragement to continue — then perhaps it would make a difference, Phillips added.

Aleppo mosque clashes

Meanwhile in Aleppo, activists said there were clashes around the 1,400-year-old Umayyad Mosque in the walled old city with rebels controlling part of it and government troops holding another part.

Rebels were reported to be continuing to battle troops for control of a police academy west of Aleppo.

The opposition launched an offensive on Aleppo, Syria's largest urban centre and its commercial capital, in July 2012.

The Aleppo grand Umayyad mosque in Syria is about 1,400 years old. (Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)

In months of street fighting, opposition fighters have slowly expanded the turf under their control. The fighting has left much of the city in ruins, and caused damage to its rich archaeological and cultural heritage.

The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Aleppo, sits near a medieval covered market in the Old City, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The mosque was heavily damaged in October 2012 just weeks after a fire gutted the old city's famed market. Clashes at the historic site have raged for days.

Fighting also intensified in the outskirts of Aleppo around a police academy that has recently emerged as a new front in the battle for the city.

The police complex includes educational facilities for recruits and several army outposts to protect it. Anti-regime activists say the government has turned the facility into a military base, using it to shell opposition areas in Aleppo's countryside as well as rebel-held neighbourhoods inside the city.

With files from CBC News