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U.S. expected to bump up aid to Syrian rebels

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 9:15 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is expected to give Syrian rebels broader nonlethal military assistance, including body armor and night-vision goggles, while stopping short of providing weapons to forces fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The timing and scope of the package is unclear. President Obama has not given final approval, and an announcement is not imminent, according to a senior administration official, who requested anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the internal deliberations.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in London on Wednesday to meet with Syrian opposition leaders, hinted this week at quick action, saying broader assistance for the rebels has been “front and center” in administration discussions in recent days.

“I'm not sure what the schedule is, but I do believe that it's important for us to try to continue to put the pressure on President Assad and to try to change his calculation,” Kerry said.

With Syria's civil war in its third year, the United States and its allies are struggling to find ways to stem the violence that, according to the United Nations, has killed more than 70,000 people.

Despite growing international pressure, Assad has managed to hang on to power far longer than the Obama administration first expected.

Obama has resisted pressure from members of Congress, military leaders and his former secretaries of State and Defense to arm the rebels, in part out of fear that the weapons could fall into the hands of fighters who have allied with Islamic extremists.

Underscoring that concern, the leader of the most formidable rebel group in Syria pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, though he distanced himself from a claim that his Islamic extremist faction had merged with the terrorist network's Iraqi branch.

Syria's opposition leaders pressed Kerry and Western diplomats Wednesday for more military equipment, according to a senior State Department official who was present at the talks.

Kerry told them that the United States was looking at different options to help the rebels but made no promises about any specific types of future aid, said the official, who demanded anonymity.

The secretary urged the opposition to organize itself better and said he would attend a meeting April 20 in Istanbul bringing together the Syrian opposition's big donor nations from Europe and the Arab world, the official said.

Among those who attended Kerry's meeting was the Syrian opposition's interim prime minister, Hassan Hitto.

After meeting with the Syrian opposition leaders, Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for talks on the conflict. The United States and Russia have frequently been at odds over the Syrian civil war, with Moscow opposing action at the U.N. Security Council that would increase pressure on Assad.

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