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 stepped-up aid package is unclear. President Barack 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 U.S. 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 Wednesday 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 U.S. was looking at different options to help the rebels, but made no promises about any specific types of future aid, said the official, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the meeting and demanded anonymity.
The secretary also urged the opposition to organize itself better and said he'd 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 in London Wednesday were the Syrian opposition's interim prime minister, Hassan Hitto; Vice Presidents Suheir Atassi and George Sabra; Secretary-General Najib Ghadbian; and the opposition's envoys to the United States and Britain.
The new nonlethal assistance package being discussed by administration officials would expand on the $60 million in aid the U.S. announced earlier this year.
That aid included meals and medical supplies for the armed opposition. It marked the first direct American assistance to the opposition forces trying to overthrow Assad, but was greeted unenthusiastically by some rebel leaders, who said it did far too little.
European and Arab nations have been more aggressive in their assistance to the rebels. Britain and France have been shipping the opposition armor, night-vision goggles and other military-style equipment, and are also open to the possibility or arming the rebels.
Arms shipments are also flowing into Syria from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
After meeting with the Syrian opposition leaders, Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for talks on the conflict. The U.S. 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.
The State Department official said Russia offered no indication that it was softening its position on Syria.
Kerry reiterated the U.S. preference for a political solution that includes Assad leaving power, the official said, and agreed to continuing discussing the situation in Syria with Lavrov and other top diplomats during an evening meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations.
Klapper reported from London.