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Kerry set to announce more aid for Syrian opposition

By Elise Labott, CNN
February 28, 2013 -- Updated 0047 GMT (0847 HKT)
  • Secretary of State John Kerry is set to make an announcement at Rome meeting
  • The plan is expected to include food and medical supplies for the armed opposition
  • Kerry says the United States is looking for ways to accelerate the political transition
  • U.S. effort so far has included humanitarian and non-lethal aid like communications gear

(CNN) -- Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to announce on Thursday an assistance package in the "tens of millions" of dollars for the Syrian opposition when he meets with them in Rome, according to two Obama administration officials.

The plan will include aid for the armed opposition wing, according to the sources.

President Barack Obama had not yet signed off on a package, but had a number of options on his desk regarding additional help for rebels fighting government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"We are looking at ways to support the opposition and that includes the armed opposition to change Assad's calculation and accelerate the political transition," one of the officials said. "The president was given various options and the decision rests with him on ultimately what that is going to look like."

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Kerry has focused on Syria in meetings this week during his first official overseas trip as America's top diplomat.

On Thursday, Kerry will be in Rome for a meeting of countries supporting the opposition. The conference will include representatives from more than 60 countries working to end the civil war that has already claimed nearly 70,000 lives.

The loosely coordinated rebel movement had been heavily outgunned by al-Assad's military forces, which leveraged superior weaponry and an air force. But rebels have made significant gains recently.

As foreign countries have funneled more weapons to the opposition, rebels have seized control of greater territory, and the fighting has moved closer to the capital of Damascus, according to opposition fighters.

The Obama administration has been considering providing non-lethal military equipment, including night vision goggles, body armor and military training. The officials could not say if that would be part of the announcement on Thursday, but it is an option Obama has to consider.

Kerry is expected to announce some aid for the armed opposition, including food and medical supplies. It is likely the military equipment and training will be announced at a later date.

Kerry is also expected to announce that U.S. humanitarian aid will go directly to the Syrian opposition as opposed to being filtered through the United Nations and other groups, as done now.

The opposition has complained about indirect funding, preferring to distribute any aid itself as a way of bolstering support among Syrians.

The Syrian National Coalition is the principal opposition group fighting al-Assad's forces.

Officials said that a number of these ideas pre-dated Kerry, but were turned down by the White House previously.

When Kerry started to talk about changing al-Assad's calculus, the State Department reintroduced the proposals and the White House "is opening up a bit," one of the administration officials said.

The United States has provided nearly $385 million in humanitarian assistance and close to $55 million in non-lethal support like communications gear.

The unrest in Syria began in March 2011, when al-Assad's government began a brutal crackdown on demonstrators calling for enhanced political freedoms.

The protest movement eventually devolved into an armed conflict, one that has devastated cities and towns around the country and spurred more than 720,000 Syrians to flee to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations' refugee agency.

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