U.S. President Barack Obama says Syria's government has lost its legitimacy by killing tens of thousands of its citizens in a bloody civil war, but he refused to describe the type of military support Washington will provide rebel forces.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama said reports the United States is heading into a new Middle Eastern war in Syria were exaggerated.
He reiterated his view that President Bashar al-Assad's government had used chemical weapons, while acknowledging that Russia was skeptical on this point. Obama called for the United Nations to conduct "a serious investigation" into chemical weapons use.
Later this week in Qatar, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with the “London 11” foreign ministers to discuss the situation in Syria, including support to the Syrian opposition and efforts to advance a political solution.
Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said anti-government rebels seized an army checkpoint on the Ariha-Latakia stretch of an international highway that goes through Syria's largest city, Aleppo, to the Turkish border.
Other rebel groups said opposition forces had seized three checkpoints and needed to capture three more to cut army access to the M5 highway.
Observatory head Rami Abdelrahman said a successful rebel campaign could sever all ground supply routes into northern Syria from the Mediterranean coast, where many of the country's most fortified military sites are located.
In the port city of Latakia, part of Assad's coastal stronghold where rebel attacks have been rare, opposition and state media said an arms store on a military site had exploded.
Also Wednesday, Syrian troops backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters pushed rebel forces out of a Damascus suburb that is home to the major Shi'ite Muslim Sayida Zeinab shrine.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said the Syrian crisis has produced a record 1.6 million refugees to date. He said the number of people who fled Syria since the beginning of January is roughly the same as the total number of refugees all over the world in 2012.
In New York, a U.N. spokesman said an interagency team last week visited the town of Qusair, scene of a devastating government assault that secured the strategic border area for pro-Assad forces.
The team reported large scale destruction, including no power or water, and said most civilians have fled to neighboring areas and to Homs and Damascus.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.