US set to expand non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels
Washington: The United States is poised to significantly expand its non-lethal military aid to the Syrian opposition as European nations weigh easing an arms embargo to potentially supply the rebels with arms and ramp up pressure on President Bashar Assad to step down.
Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to announce a contribution of between USD 120 million and USD 130 million in defensive military supplies that could include items such as body armour, armoured vehicles, night vision goggles and advanced communications equipment at an international conference on Syria he will attend Saturday in Turkey, US officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to preview Kerry`s announcement publicly.
Whether either the new influx of military supplies or the eventual easing of the European Union arms embargo would change the state of the Syrian opposition is unclear.
The European move amounts to a new threat to arm the rebels, and tests whether the defiant Syrian president reacts to the increased pressure or if even stronger international intervention from either side of the Atlantic is needed.
The European Union arms embargo expires at the end of May and may be allowed to expire or be modified to only block weapons that are headed to Assad`s regime.
The officials said the exact dollar figure and specific composition of the aid has not yet been finalised and will be determined in consultation with the Syrian opposition leadership and other main members of the "Friends of Syria" group that is meeting in Istanbul.
Despite pressure from Congress and advisers within his own administration, President Barack Obama has maintained he has no plans to send weapons or give lethal aid to the rebels.
Instead, the US has been shipping food and medical supplies directly to the Free Syrian Army since February, and later expanded the aid to include defensive military equipment. So far, the US has provided an estimated USD 117 million in non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition.
The US is not opposed to other countries arming the rebels provided there are assurances the weapons do not get to extremist groups that have gained ground in the conflict.
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