Thursday, February 28th, 2013 at 11:11am

Rome talks look to bolster Syrian rebels

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Syria’s opposition and foreign powers are set to hold crucial talks in the Italian capital of Rome, with the US suggesting it plans to support Syrian rebels in their struggle against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The Friends of Syria meeting on Thursday comes after John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said the opposition needs “more help” in the fight against Assad and that Washington wants to speed up the country’s political transition.

Kerry is in Rome for talks with other nations that are backing the rebellion, and some of the help that could be on the table include providing food, medicine and even training.

It also comes ahead of an important meeting of the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group, on Saturday in Istanbul, Turkey where the umbrella group is to elect a prime minister and government to run parts of Syria seized from Assad’s control.

Momentum has been building ahead of Rome talks, with the opposition – which initially vowed a boycott – lured back to the 11-nation meeting after the US and Britain promised specific offers of help.

In Paris as part of a European tour on Wednesday, Kerry made it clear Washington was ready to step up its support for the opposition.

“We are examining and developing ways to accelerate the political transition that the Syrian people seek and deserve, and that is what we will be discussing in Rome,” Kerry said.

The Washington Post newspaper reported on Wednesday that the White House was considering a policy shift to supply rebels with “non-lethal” aid, including armoured vehicles and perhaps even military training.

A US State Department official refused to confirm the report, but said Washington wanted to help the opposition maintain “the institutions of the state” in areas under their control.

“We’re talking about basic services, water, electricity — but also (to) build up new institutions in terms of governance, rule of law, police,” State Department deputy acting spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.

Prominent US Senator Marco Rubio on Wednesday urged the United States to provide ammunition to Syrian rebels and share intelligence, but only with “responsible” groups.

Humanitarian crisis

Meanwhile, a senior UN official has told the Security Council that the total number of Syrian refugees will likely pass 1 million in less than a month.

In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria

Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the UN agency as of Tuesday had registered 936,000 Syrians across the Middle East and North Africa, nearly 30 times as many people as April last year.

The UN humanitarian chief has warned that the growing number of Syrians fleeing the country’s conflict is outstripping the international community’s ability to help.

Valerie Amos told reporters after briefing the Security Council that “this is a crisis that is completely stretching our capacity”.

She said she is extremely concerned about the rising cost, noting that the UN has received only $200m of the more than $1.5bn pledged for Syria at a January 30 donor’s conference in Kuwait.

The $1.5bn was supposed to cover humanitarian needs in Syria for six months but that projection, from the end of the year, is already out of date, she added.


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