U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Syrian opposition leaders Thursday in Rome, where he could announce new aid for Syrian rebels.
The talks come amid a wider Friends of Syria meeting, bringing together mostly European and Middle Eastern nations that back those opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Kerry said Wednesday the U.S. is seeking ways to speed up the political transition the Syrian people are seeking.
During his current nine-nation tour of European and Arab capitals, Secretary of State John Kerry has made coordinating efforts to support the Syrian opposition in its struggle against President Bashar al-Assad a top priority. Wednesday, after meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Kerry emphasized the need to push for an end to the two-year-old conflict that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives.
“We are examining and developing ways to accelerate the political transition that the Syrian people seek and deserve," said Kerry.
So far the United States has provided only communications equipment to rebels in Syria. Administration officials have opposed sending military aid, fearing weapons could end up in the hands of radical fighters.
But recent news reports say the U.S. is ready to change that policy and begin directly supplying Syria’s opposition coalition with non-lethal equipment such as body armor, armored vehicles, possibly training and humanitarian aid.
U.S. and European officials say the White House is still weighing the new policy.
In Washington, proponents of American intervention in the Syrian conflict, like Senator John McCain, say non-lethal aid is a step in the right direction but more is needed to help the rebels.
“It is a small measure, and I do not think at this stage of the game that it will positively affect the situation on the ground," said McCain. "We need a safe zone. We need to supply them with lethal weapons, and we need to support them. And we are not doing that.”
While there is concern that increasing support for the rebels could escalate the conflict and wider tensions in the region, analyst John Pike with Global Security.org says American leadership to help moderate rebel forces and maintain regional stability is long overdue.
“I’m certainly concerned about what the Russians are going to think," said Pike. "I am certainly concerned about some of the aid falling into the wrong hands. I’m concerned about what might happen with Syria and chemical weapons, but I think that the problem that would arise if we just stand by and watch it on TV, the way we’ve been doing for the last two years, are even worse.”
European Union foreign ministers agreed last week to extend an arms embargo against Syria, but did open the door to providing more non-lethal support to protect civilians.
Leaders from the opposition Syrian National Coalition had planned to boycott the Rome talks to protest what they saw as a lack of response from the international community, but now say they will attend the meeting set for Thursday.