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US Suspends Non-Lethal Aid for Syrian Rebels

A Syrian refugee carries bread and bottles of water during a winter storm in Zahle town, in the Bekaa Valley, Dec. 11, 2013.

A Syrian refugee carries bread and bottles of water during a winter storm in Zahle town, in the Bekaa Valley, Dec. 11, 2013.

The United States confirmed Wednesday that non-lethal aid to northern Syria has been suspended after Islamist fighters seized warehouses used by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels.

The White House and State Department made a point of emphasizing that humanitarian aid continues, though non-lethal assistance has been suspended.

Fighters from the Islamic Front, an umbrella group of six major rebel brigades, seized Free Syrian Army bases and weapons warehouses at a border crossing between Syria and Turkey.

Independent from the FSA, the front seeks to establish an Islamic state in Syria.

U.S. spokesmen said Washington is concerned about reports of the seizures, is "still gathering facts and consulting with General Idriss" and others on the rebel Supreme Military Council "to inventory the status of U.S. equipment and supplies."

White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest was asked if the suspension reflects a loss of faith in the ability of FSA rebels to fight without Islamic extremist interference or participation.

He said U.S. assistance is aimed at supporting moderate opposition elements, and responded this way when asked if the suspension weakens military opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

"What we are interested in doing is trying to coordinate and lift - coordinate with and lift up the moderate elements of the opposition. And that has been a challenge from the very beginning, both to identify the moderate elements of the opposition and to provide them the support that they need to try to bring about the kind of transition that reflects the will of the Syrian people. That has been a challenging proposition from the very beginning, and that continues to be challenging," said Earnest.

Britain also suspended its nonlethal aid. A Free Syrian Army official urged the U.S. and Britain to "re-think" the decision and wait until there is more clarity on the ground.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked how long the suspension might last.

"I wouldn't want to put a day on - or a date or a day on it. Obviously it's in our interests and the international community's interest to resume - to have the aid going through this area as soon as we can, but we want to evaluate the circumstances on the ground and make a decision," said Psaki.

Psaki and Earnest said humanitarian assistance distributed through international and nongovernmental organizations, including the United Nations, is not affected.

Asked for clarification later, a White House official referred this reporter to the State Department "for further details on the area impacted by the suspension."

Speaking with VOA's Senate correspondent on Capitol Hill, Republican Senator John McCain voiced his concern.

"It's a recognition of the reality that parts of the northern Syrian border have been taken over by the al-Nusra and other extremist Islamist groups directly attribute to [directly as a result of] our failure to help people who are the moderates, the Free Syrian Army, led by General Idriss. Our failure to help them while 5,000 Hezbollah came in, while plane loads of arms came in from Russia, while [Iran's] Revolutionary Guard is on the ground, and we have failed," said McCain.

McCain said external assistance has allowed Syrian President Assad to regain momentum on the ground from rebel forces.

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