Kerry: US, allies, ready to step up aid rebels

Associated Press
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks during a joint news conference with his Jordanian counterpart, Nasser Judeh, right, in Amman Wednesday, May 22, 2013. Secretary of State John Kerry says the United States and its Arab and European allies will step up their support for Syria’s opposition to help them “fight for the freedom of their country” if President Bashar Assad’s regime doesn’t engage in peace talks in good faith. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — The U.S. and several key allies looked again Wednesday for a strategy to end Syria's civil war, their united efforts unable at the moment to stem the Assad regime's military gains and Washington still unwilling to join those providing the rebels with lethal military aid.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry allowed that President Barack Obama won't send American troops to Syria. But he made clear that more aid to the rebels would be coming if the regime refuses to cooperate with an international effort — to be put together in June in Geneva — to form a transitional government.

"In the event that we can't find that way forward, in the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate Geneva in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support, growing support for opposition in order to permit them to continue to fight for the freedom of their country," Kerry said.

Obama "has also made it clear that he intends to support the broad-based opposition, and he has taken no options off the table with respect to how that support may be provided, or what kind of support that might be," he told a news conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh before a meeting between Kerry and the foreign ministers of 10 close American partners.

Wednesday's meeting comes after several weeks of military gains by the Assad regime, including the reopening of a key southern highway to Jordan and a push into a strategic rebel-held western town over the weekend.

Such successes will likely harden Assad's position in any peace talks. The Syrian leader has said that he will not step down as a result of transition talks, and that Syria's political future must be determined in elections.

Kerry and the other top diplomats met behind closed doors for more than two hours Wednesday evening in Amman to discuss how to change the momentum.

A Jordanian-based Western diplomat, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said the Assad regime was proving more resilient than expected. He said his government was concluding the rebels might not be able to defeat it without greater and more direct assistance.

Some of that new resilience in the Syrian regime comes from help from Iran and the militant Hezbollah movement.

Kerry warned those regime allies to stop providing assistance to Assad, saying such activity "perpetuates the regime's campaign of terror against its own people."

"We have to hope that Bashar Assad and his regime will understand the meaning of that and the Iranians and others will understand the meaning of that," Kerry said. "The president will keep those options available to him short of American forces on ground."

To that end, an administration official in Washington said the White House would soon notify Congress about an expanded package of non-lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels.

Details of the aid package are still being finalized, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the expanded aid publicly and insisted on anonymity.

But the package is likely to include armored vehicles and communications gear, two U.S. officials said. It is not expected to include night vision goggles or body armor, underscoring the cautious approach the U.S. has taken regarding military-style assistance to the opposition.

As Kerry and his counterparts arrived at the meeting venue in Amman, about 250 pro-Assad demonstrators blocked the main entrance.

The protesters, a mix of Jordanians and Syrians, chanted "Death to America," and, "Go home, Kerry we don't want you here."

A key battle has been waged since Sunday over control of the western town of Qusair, which had been in rebel hands for more than a year. Qusair is located along a land corridor that links two Assad strongholds, the capital Damascus and the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect along the Mediterranean coast.

Syrian troops backed by fighters from Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah militia have pushed into Qusair since the start of the offensive. Underlining its importance, Syria's main opposition alliance, the Syrian National Coalition, on Wednesday urged rebel fighters from across Syria to converge on the town to help defend it.

Opposition fighters in Qusair were holding out Wednesday, but appeared to be under increasing strain as government tanks and artillery pounded the town and warplanes bombed it from the sky.

The battle for Qusair has also raised Hezbollah's profile in Syria's civil war. The Lebanese militia, one of Assad's staunchest allies, initially tried to play down its involvement to avoid political backlash at home, but could no longer do so after dozens of its fighters were killed in Qusair this week, followed by funerals drawing large crowds in Lebanon.

Most of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims back the Syria's predominantly Sunni opposition, while Shiites support the Assad regime, which is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.

The battle in Qusair, six miles from the Lebanese border, was accompanied by new sectarian clashes in Lebanon's northern port city of Tripoli. Supporters and opponents of Assad have traded gunfire every day since Sunday, leaving 10 people dead and more than 100 wounded, Lebanese security officials said.

At the news conference, Kerry and Judeh both stressed that the goal is to get the Syrian government and opposition into political transition talks that could begin as early as next month in Geneva.

Without that, violence will continue and the death toll from the conflict will continue to rise, he said.

"Let's assume there is no Geneva 2," Kerry said. "Let's assume we don't come together as community of nations to try to find a peaceful process."

"What will happen? What will happen is an absolute guarantee that violence will continue and the world will be standing on the sidelines doing nothing constructive to try to end that violence. That's unacceptable," he said.

Judeh said, "Innocent blood shed every day in Syria and the destruction of culture and heritage puts on us a moral responsibility to help the Syrians achieve a political solution."

The comments came a day after a Senate panel voted to provide weapons to the rebels, the first time American lawmakers have endorsed the aggressive U.S. military step of arming the opposition.

With a degree of trepidation, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 15-3 for a bill that would provide lethal assistance and military training to vetted rebel groups, and would slap sanctions on anyone — such as Iran or Russia — who sells oil or transfers arms to the Assad regime. The measure would also establish a $250 million fund to aid in the transition if and when Assad falls.

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Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Matthew Lee in Washington and Jamal Halaby in Amman contributed to this report.

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