Rebels want guns but get food and medicine

The United States will give direct assistance to those fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the first time in what was touted as a significant policy shift, but the food supplies and medicine it will provide fall far short of the anti-aircraft guns and weapons the rebels demand.

Funnelled to the Syrian rebels' central military council, the first cautious US sortie into direct frontline support was announced at an international conference in Rome. It will be ring-fenced from US$60 million ($72.5 million) in additional non-lethal aid pledged by Secretary of State John Kerry, which will be used to provide basic services on the ground.

The opposition's reaction to the army-issue ready-to-eat meals and medical supplies was muted as rumours that the US may supply body armour and armoured vehicles did not materialise. However, such support may be near as Britain and France look to provide the rebels with expanded defensive military equipment after adjustments to an EU arms embargo on Syria last month.

"The stakes are really high," said Kerry.

"We can't risk letting this country in the heart of the Middle East be destroyed by vicious autocrats or hijacked by the extremists."

The new push to tip the balance of power on the battlefield comes amid diminished hopes for a diplomatic solution, in a conflict that often claims in excess of 100 lives a day.

The National Coalition's leader, Moaz al-Khatib, notably made no mention of the new US assistance, instead giving an impassioned speech demanding that Assad end Scud missile attacks.

The coalition, which had originally planned to boycott the Rome meeting in protest at the international community's lack of support, made demands during the conference, including direct military support for rebels.

That prospect remains unlikely. The White House nixed a proposal by the Pentagon and CIA to arm the rebels last year.

However, Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the coalition, said he was "cautiously optimistic" since the talks.

- Independent

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