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U.S. mulls military supplies, training to Syrian rebels

| Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, 9:42 p.m.
Syrians ride a scooter as one gestures, as they pass by a destroyed street which was damaged by the shelling of the Syrian forces, at Maarat al-Nuaman town, in Idlib province, Syria, Tuesday Feb. 26, 2013. Syrian rebels battled government troops near a landmark 12th century mosque in the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday, while fierce clashes raged around a police academy west of the city, activists said. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The Obama administration is moving toward a major policy shift on Syria that could provide the rebels with equipment such as body armor, armored vehicles and possible military training and could send humanitarian assistance directly to Syria's opposition political coalition, according to U.S. and European officials.

The administration has not provided direct aid to either the military or political side of the opposition throughout the more than two-year old Syrian conflict, and U.S. officials remain opposed to providing weapons to the rebels.

Elements of the proposed policy, which officials cautioned have not yet been finalized, are being discussed by Secretary of State John Kerry in meetings this week and next with allies in Europe and the Middle East as part of a coordinated effort to end the bloody stalemate that has claimed 70,000 lives.

The outcome of those talks, and a nearly two-hour meeting in Berlin on Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and a conference scheduled for Thursday with allies and leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Rome, is expected to weigh heavily in administration deliberations.

Kerry has made repeated indirect references to a policy shift during his travels. He told a group of German students Tuesday that while the United States wants a “peaceful resolution” in Syria, if its leaders refuse to negotiate and continue to kill citizens, “then you need to at least provide some kind of support” for those fighting for their rights.

On Monday in London, he said: “We are not coming to Rome simply to talk. We're coming to make decisions about next steps.”

Opposition political leaders had threatened to boycott the Rome meeting, but they were persuaded to attend after telephone calls in which Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden said substantive proposals would be on the table.

The pending shift to a more active role comes as the administration and its partners backing the opposition, including Britain, France and countries in the region, have concluded that there is little immediate chance for a negotiated political settlement to the conflict with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Western officials have also acknowledged that the opposition coalition is unlikely to quickly develop a governing infrastructure and attract significant support from fence-sitting Syrian minorities and Assad supporters.

The opposition, meantime, has been strident in its criticism of the United States and others for refusing to provide it with the resources to organize a quasi-government and broaden its support inside Syria.

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