‘Friends of Syria’ meet under pressure to arm rebels

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The main international backers of Syria’s opposition gather in Istanbul on Saturday with the rebels hoping Western and Arab countries will step up their support, the Agence France-Presse reported.

The 11-nation core group of the “Friends of Syria” – including the United States, European nations and Arab countries – will hold talks with key figures in the opposition battling President Bashar al-Assad.

The group has so far struggled to come up with a united strategy to end the violence in Syria, despite fighting that has seen more than 70,000 killed and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes.

The opposition is pressing demands for foreign allies to supply arms to the rebels, but analysts said it was unlikely Saturday’s meeting will mark a major breakthrough.

Despite recognizing the opposition as the official representative of the Syrian people, Washington and its Western allies have been hesitant to give military support to opposition forces, pointing to extremist Islamist elements capable of hijacking and dominating the Syrian uprising against President Assad.

However, the United States plans to provide about $100 million in new non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition that could include for the first time battlefield support equipment such as body armor and night-vision goggles, Reuters cited a U.S. official as saying.

A senior State Department official said “assistance to the Supreme Military Council [of the rebel Free Syrian Army], beyond military food rations and medical kits to include other types of non-lethal supplies, is ... being discussed, and will be determined in collaboration with SMC leadership.”

U.S. officials have said in the past that the equipment could include armored vehicles and advanced communications equipment.

Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to announce the new aid package, which would mark a recalibration of U.S. policy toward rebel groups in the Syrian civil war, at an international conference on Syria that he will attend in Turkey this weekend.

While the non-lethal arms support is expected to fall short of what the Syrian opposition needs, it suggests that the White House, amid difficult internal debate, is continuing to move slowly toward a more direct role in bolstering the Syrian opposition.

The military stalemate has set in, and much of Syria is left in ruins because of a divided and ineffective opposition, a lack of action by foreign allies and Assad’s ability to rely on support from Russia and Iran.

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