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 $120 million and $130 million in defensive military supplies - that could include items such as body armor, armored vehicles, night vision goggles and advanced communications equipment - at an international conference on Syria he will attend Saturday in Turkey, U.S. officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized 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 give weapons to 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 finalized 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.
Kerry said Thursday the conference aims to get the opposition and all prospective donors "on the same page" with how Syria will be governed if and when Assad leaves power or is toppled.
"The hope is that that will then create a confidence level about who is getting what kind of aid from whom," Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Istanbul meeting comes days after findings by British and French officials bolstered accusations that the Assad regime launched chemicals weapons in several locations across Syria.
A confidential March 25 letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, described this week to The Associated Press, claimed that soil samples and interviews with witnesses and opposition members backed their belief that the government used chemical shells that caused deaths and injuries. The regime also has accused rebel forces of using the chemical agents, but will not let U.N. experts inspect areas beyond where Assad says the opposition launched its attack. Ban said Wednesday that the investigation will continue.
With Syria's civil war in its third year, the U.S. and its European and Arab allies are struggling to find ways to stem the violence that, according to the United Nations, has killed more than 70,000 people. Despite vehement international pressure, Assad has managed to hang on to power far longer than the Obama administration first expected.
"We need to change President Assad's calculation, that is clear," Kerry said. He said the regime's survival largely lies with the continued support it gets from Iran, its proxy Hezbollah, and Russia.
"That equation somehow has to change," Kerry said.
He said boosting the size and scope of non-lethal assistance to the rebels is one way to convince Assad that he must go.
Despite pressure from Congress and even 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 U.S. 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 U.S. has provided an estimated $117 million in non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. It has also stationed 200 U.S. troops in Jordan to help that country's military defend against a possible chemical attack by Assad.
Sen. John McCain, a leading Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, renewed his call Thursday for U.S. military action in Syria, including airstrikes on regime aircraft and weapons, but no American soldiers. He said doing so would give moderate and secular opposition forces a better chance to succeed without having to depend on extremist groups that are supporting the rebels.
"Do the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action? I believe they do," McCain said at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. "And as much as I hate war and wish to avoid it, I believe this conflict will grind on with all of its worsening effects until the balance of power shifts more decisively against Assad."
The U.S. 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.
In Europe, Britain and France are leading a push to modify the European Union's arms embargo on Syria to permit weapons transfers to the rebels by the end of next month. The EU embargo is set to expire at the end of May unless it is extended or revised.
Those in favor of the change say there have been no decisions on whether to actually supply the rebels with arms, but they argue that the mere fact of allowing such transfers will increase the pressure on Assad. U.S. officials say they support testing this strategy and are 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.
Germany and the Netherlands, however, are said to be reluctant to support the step because they fear it will lead to further bloodshed.
Amal Mudallali, a Syria scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said it is unlikely that Assad will leave any time soon. She noted that Syrian regime forces have stepped up counterattacks against the rebels in recent days, and predicted the fighting would have to dramatically shift against Assad for him to go.
"If the E.U. lifts the embargo, maybe this will change things on the ground, but I am not sure it will change the American position," Mudallali said. "But it will put pressure on the Americans, because they don't want to feel they are behind on things. It will show people in the region that the Americans are not leading on this - that the E.U. is."
In an interview Thursday, the E.U.'s top official for humanitarian aid said arming the rebels or otherwise giving them deadly aid could create a backlash by the regime and, in effect, worsen the situation for the Syrian people.
E.U. Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said she does not advocate a position on whether the international community should arm the rebels or not, and maintained that efforts to promote diplomacy through dialogue have not yet been fully exhausted.
"Because the Syrian government, the Assad government, has very strong military and chemical weapons, we have to be fair and say there is a risk in Syria that an external use of force may trigger to the detriment of the Syrian people," Georgieva said. "It may get worse."
Kerry said that Assad, his inner circle and supporters in Iran and Russia have yet to be convinced to enter negotiations with the opposition and allow for a political transition. He said he had not given up on persuading Moscow to reverse its support for Assad, and would be meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov next week in Brussels on the sidelines of a NATO-Russia Council meeting.
"My hope is still that the Russians can be constructive," he said.