ROME - In a significant policy shift, the Obama administration said Thursday it would for the first time provide non-lethal aid directly to rebels who are battling to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, announcing an additional $60 million in assistance to Syria's political opposition.
The modest package of aid to the military wing of the opposition will consist of an as yet undetermined amount of food rations and medical supplies for members of the Free Syrian Army who will be carefully screened to ensure they do not have links to extremists.
The move was announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at an international conference on Syria in Rome, and several European nations are expected in the coming days to take similar steps in working with the military wing of the opposition in order to ramp up pressure on Assad to step down and pave the way for a democratic transition. However, a number of Syrian opposition figures expressed disappointment with the limited assistance.
"We do this because we need to stand on the side of those in this fight who want to see Syria rise again and see democracy and human rights," Kerry said. "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."
"No nation, no people should live in fear of their so-called leaders," he said, adding that President Barack Obama's "decision to take further steps now is the result of the brutality of a superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah."
Kerry and senior officials from 11 countries most active in calling for Assad to leave said in a joint statement released by the Italian foreign ministry that they had agreed in Rome on "the need to change the balance of power on the ground." It said the countries represented "will coordinate their efforts closely so as to best empower the Syrian people and support the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army in its efforts to help them exercise self-defense."
Britain and France, two countries that Kerry visited before traveling to Italy on his first official trip as secretary of state, have signaled that they want to begin supplying the rebels with defensive military equipment such as combat body armor, armored 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, delivered a forceful and emotional demand 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 worlds
"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" by 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.
The head of the rebel's Supreme Military Council, Gen. Salim Idris, told Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency before the meeting Thursday that the rebels' needs include anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
"We hope that a decision is reached at the Friends of the Syrian People meeting which will enable us to obtain the weapons we need," the agency quoted Idris as saying. Idris said Assad's regime receives "unlimited" support from Russia and Iran.
Kerry defended the limited U.S. assistance, saying it was just part of what was being offered and that other countries would fill in any gaps. He said he was confident that the "totality" of the aid should be enough to prod Assad to start changing his calculations on remaining in power.
"We're doing this, but other countries are doing other things," he replied, without going into specifics. "I am confident the totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals." Kerry said Thursday's meeting marked the "beginning of a process that will in fact change his (Assad's) calculation."
Washington has already provided $385 million in humanitarian aid to Syria's war-weary population and $54 million in communications equipment, medical supplies and other nonlethal assistance 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 radical Islamic elements since Assad's initial crackdown on peaceful protesters in March 2011.
The $60 million in new aid to the political opposition is intended to help the opposition govern newly liberated areas of Syria by aiding in the delivery of services and improving rule of law and human rights as well as to blunt the influence of extremists who have made inroads in some places.
The rations and medical supplies for the fighters will be delivered to the military council for distribution only to carefully vetted members of the Free Syrian Army, U.S. officials said.
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.
The foreign ministers' presentation was disrupted by one protester who called on them to "stop supporting terrorists."
Associated Press writers Suzan Frazer in Ankara, Turkey, and Ben Hubbard in Beirut contributed to this report.