BEIRUT/ROME: The United States and some European allies are edging closer to direct involvement in Syria’s civil war with plans to deliver meals, medical kits and other forms of nonlethal assistance to the rebels battling President Bashar Assad.
The U.S., Britain, France and Italy aren’t planning to supply the rebels with weapons or ammunition. But moves are afoot to significantly boost the size and scope of their aid to the political and military opposition. Such decisions could be announced as early as Thursday at an international conference on Syria in Rome.
Ahead of the meeting, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters: “We will continue to provide assistance to the Syrian people, to the Syrian opposition, we will continue to increase our assistance in the effort to bring about a post-Assad Syria.”
Britain and France are keen to give the rebels the means to protect themselves from attacks by Assad’s forces, including Scud missiles fired in recent days against the city of Aleppo, U.S. and European officials say.
Assistance could mean combat armor, vehicles and other equipment not deemed to be offensive, the officials said. It could include training in battlefield medical care and the protection of human rights, they said.
For now, the Obama administration is advancing more modestly. It is nearing a decision whether to give ready-made meals and medical supplies to the opposition fighters, who have not received direct U.S. assistance.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was expected to announce the new contributions at the Rome conference, in addition to tens of millions of dollars intended for rule of law and governance programs.
The opposition will demand “qualitative military support” at the talks, a leading Assad opponent told Reuters.
“We ask our friends to give us every backing to achieve gains on the ground and help reach a political solution from a position of strength, not weakness,” Riad Seif of the Syrian National Coalition umbrella group said a day before a Friends of Syria conference in the Italian capital.
“We expect to receive political, humanitarian and qualitative military support,” he said.
Washington has 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.
Kerry said Wednesday in Paris that both the U.S. and Europe wanted a negotiated solution to the crisis and would speak to the leaders of the Syrian National Coalition about that. He also said the world must be prepared to do more to support the rebels and he accused Assad’s government of engaging in “criminal behavior.”
“We want their advice on how we can accelerate the prospects of a political solution because that is what we believe is the best path to peace, the best way to protect the interests of the Syrian people, the best way to end the killing and the violence,” he said at a news conference with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
“That may require us to change President Assad’s current calculation,” Kerry said. “He needs to know that he can’t shoot his way out of this. And so we need to convince him of that, and I think the opposition needs more help in order to be able to do that.”
Fabius offered a similar assessment.
“The situation is unbearable and we need to find the means to a transition and for Assad’s departure,” he said. “We agree all of us on the fact that Mr. Bashar Assad has to quit.”
On the ground, governmentwarplanes carried out airstrikes on rebels trying to storm a police academy outside Aleppo, activists said, while jihadist fighters battled government troops along a key supply road leading to the southeastern part of the city, activists said.
The academy has recently emerged as a new front in the fight for the city, which is considered a major prize in the conflict. Activists say the government has turned the facility into a military base, using it to shell opposition areas in the countryside as well as rebel-held neighborhoods inside the city. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes raged Wednesday around the complex.
“The rebels are still trying to storm the school, but they can’t because the regime is carrying out airstrikes and bombarding rebel forces,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
He said at least six rebels were killed Wednesday, bringing the three-day death toll to 37 opposition fighters and more than 50 regime troops.
Another key front in the battle for control of Aleppo is the city’s international airport. Rebels have been trying for months to seize the facility, and have made headway in recent weeks, overrunning checkpoints and capturing a military base charged with protecting the airport.
The government is desperate to hold onto the airport, which it has used in the past to fly in supplies to its troops bogged down in the city. However, the fighting has forced the government to close the airport to flights and to try to send supplies and reinforcements overland.
Most of those reinforcements, including dozens of vehicles and thousands of troops, are now stuck in the city of Safira, southeast of Aleppo, according to Abdel-Rahman. Fighters from the Nusra Front, an Islamic extremist rebel group that the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, have cut the road leading from Safira to the airport, and for weeks have battled troops along the road, preventing them from pushing north to the city to link up with government troops there.
The Observatory reported fierce clashes north of Safira Wednesday, with both sides shelling each other with mortars and artillery.
In Damascus, the Observatory said several mortar shells exploded near the military judiciary and the literature department of Damascus University.