West to send Syrian rebels aid, not arms

Thu Feb 28, 2013 2:43pm EST
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By Arshad Mohammed and Khaled Yacoub Oweis

ROME (Reuters) - Western powers pledged aid for Syrian rebels on Thursday but stopped short of offering them weapons, disappointing opponents of President Bashar al-Assad clamoring for more arms.

More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in a fierce conflict that began with peaceful anti-Assad protests nearly two years ago.

Washington has given $385 million in humanitarian aid for Syria but U.S. President Barack Obama has so far refused to give arms, arguing it is difficult to prevent them from falling into the hands of militants who could use them on Western targets.

The United States said it would for the first time give non-lethal aid to the rebels and would more than double its support to Syria's civilian opposition, casting it as a way to bolster the rebels' popular support.

The help will include medical supplies, food for rebel fighters and $60 million to help the civil opposition provide basic services like security, education and sanitation.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the new steps after a meeting of 11 mostly European and Arab nations within the "Friends of Syria" group.

The European Union, acting on a decision this month to send direct aid to the rebels, said it had amended sanctions on Syria to permit the supply of armored vehicles, non-lethal military equipment and technical aid, provided they were intended to protect civilians.

If the provision of non-lethal assistance goes smoothly, it could conceivably offer a model for providing weaponry should Western governments ultimately decide to do so.   Continued...

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) holds a news conference with Syrian National Coalition President Mouaz al-Khatib (C) and Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi at Villa Madama in Rome February 28, 2013. The United States will send non-lethal aid directly to Syrian rebels for the first time, Kerry said on Thursday, disappointing opponents of President Bashar al-Assad who are clamouring for Western weapons. REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool