US pledges first direct aid to Syria rebel fighters

The United States said on Thursday it would for the first time provide direct aid to Syrian rebels, but not the arms they had hoped for, as well as $60 million in extra assistance to the political opposition.

After talks with European and Arab partners and the opposition National Coalition in Rome, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would provide aid to fighters in the form of food and medical assistance.

The move was a significant shift in US policy but fell short of rebel demands for Western backers to supply the rebellion with weapons or non-offensive military equipment, such as vehicles and body armour.

Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, who stood beside Kerry as he made the announcement, expressed disappointment, suggesting the West was overly focused on the presence of Islamists among rebels.

He also complained about weapons continuing to reach the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Kerry said that, "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. Instead, what we have seen is his brutality increase."

The goal was to give the opposition the means to control areas it has seized from the regime, to prove to Assad he can't "shoot his way out" of the conflict.

"Working together, we've already been able to do a lot... but today, President Obama has encouraged all of us to embrace the notion that we need to do more."

Kerry said the $60 million would strengthen the Coalition's organisational capacity, and help war-torn communities with respect to sanitation, food delivery, public order, education and medical care.

"The stakes are really high. And we can't risk letting this country, in the heart of the Middle East, be destroyed by vicious autocrats or hijacked by the extremists.

In supporting the Coalition and the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), "we reject both of those choices, and we stand with those Syrians fighting for the right to choose dignity and democracy and justice. That's our battle."

A State Department official said the new money was in addition to $50 million in non-lethal support Washington has already provided to help Syrian opposition activists, including communications equipment.

That aid was provided through Turkey, while the United States has also contributed some $380 million dollars in humanitarian aid through UN agencies and aid groups.

Asked about congressional approval of the funding, Kerry told journalists he was "very confident for rapid delivery".

For his part, Khatib complained that "a lot people, particularly the media, pay more attention to the length of fighters' beards (an allusion to jihadists in Syria) than to the shedding of children's blood and regime bombardments.

"Indications are that there has been an international decision not to arm the Syria resistance with high-calibre weapons. If that is what you want, then stop providing the regime with these types of weapons, which continue to arrive under the pretext of honouring existing contracts."

A Western diplomat who took part told AFP the opposition had seen the announcement of new US money as a step forward.

"Khatib felt an evolution. It maybe wasn't what he wanted, but it was a useful step," said the diplomat, noting that it was the first time Washington had named Syria's Supreme Military Council, the rebel military command, as a "partner."

Soon after Kerry's announcement, the Coalition indefinitely postponed a meeting that was to have been held in Istanbul on Saturday to elect a premier and government for "liberated areas" of Syria.

Coalition member Samir Nashar told AFP said he could not say why, and did not exclude its cancellation.

However, he pointed to "US-Russian efforts to start a dialogue between the Syrian regime and the Coalition that would result in a transitional government and thus be at odds with an interim (opposition) government."

Pressure has been building for talks to end the conflict. Russia, Assad's most powerful supporter, called this week for both sides to sit down for negotiations.

In Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande said foreign powers had the same goal but acknowledged differences over how to reach it.

"We have the same objective -- to avoid the disintegration of this country and to avoid allowing terrorists to profit from this chaos. We want political dialogue," Hollande said after talks in the Kremlin.

"There is the question of the manner of how to get there."

Meanwhile, violence continued to rage inside Syria, with rebels seizing control of the historic Umayyad Mosque in second city Aleppo after days of fierce clashes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A car bomb also exploded in a regime-held suburb of Homs city, killing a number of people and wounding others, state news agency SANA said.

The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands have been uprooted since the conflict broke out in March 2011.

Officials from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates participated, as well as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

In Brussels, meanwhile, the European Union renewed wide-ranging sanctions against the Syrian regime while leaving the door open to providing technical assistance, including training, to the opposition.