U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday announced $60 million in additional aid to the Syrian opposition and also for the first time an unspecified amount of non-lethal aid to some of its military forces.
The announcement came in Rome where Kerry attended a meeting with the Syrian opposition leaders and officials from dozens of countries supporting them.
Kerry said the $60 million will enable the opposition to provide services in areas it controls and help build its local support. Militant groups have filled that role in some areas, raising concerns in the West.
The military aid — combat rations and medical supplies — will be the first provided by the United States directly to the opposition military council.
Kerry said the international community is committed to working with the Syrian opposition "with peace as a first resort."
"They are the legitimate voice of the Syrian people. And that stands in very stark contrast to the rule of Bashar al-Assad, who long ago lost his legitimacy and who is out of time and who must be out of power," said Kerry.
The Syrian opposition wants weapons, and was hoping for at least equipment like body armor and armored vehicles. The United States is concerned about any supplies being passed to the militants, who have many of the most effective fighting units.
Concern over militants
At a news conference Thursday, after what is called the Friends of Syria meeting, Kerry referred to the concern about militants, and the balance the international community is trying to strike between pressing for an end to the Assad regime and not strengthening the extremists.
“We can't risk letting this country in the heart of the Middle East be destroyed by vicious autocrats or hijacked by the extremists," he said. "In supporting the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Free Syrian Army, we reject both of those choices.”
Kerry has said the United States wants to "change the calculation" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is making as he clings to power and orders increasingly brutal attacks on civilian areas.
“What we're doing today is part of a whole, and I am very confident that that whole is going to have the ability for President Assad to realize he better start measuring more effectively what his future is, what his choices are and what kinds of weapons he uses," he said.
"So I'm very confident in what the president [Obama] has put forward today as the beginning of a process that will, in fact, change his [Assad's] calculation,” Kerry said.
The president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, spoke forcefully at the news conference, calling on President Assad to stop bombing civilian areas. Khatib also expressed impatience with his foreign supporters, who he believes are overly concerned about their aid falling into the hands of terrorists.
"No terrorists in the world have such a savage nature as that of the Syrian regime,” he said.
The meeting's communique said the opposition coalition would soon appoint someone to lead an interim government that would operate inside Syria.
That was expected to come at a meeting scheduled for Istanbul on Saturday. But the activists announced Thursday that the meeting was called off.
Khalid Saleh, director of the media office for the Syrian National Coalition, told VOA that some coalition members were unable to attend because they were not consulted about the date and because some members had scheduling conflicts.
Saleh said the activists plan to reschedule the election of an interim prime minister within a few days.
"No new date has been set. I cannot reveal the reasons at this time and I do not exclude its cancellation," opposition member Samir Nashar told the French news agency.