ISTANBUL (AP) — Foreign ministers from the main supporters of the rebels trying to topple the Syrian government worked Saturday to increase pressure on President Bashar Assad, but the opposition demanded direct military involvement.
The United States prepared a major boost in nonlethal military aid while European nations considered changes to an arms embargo that would allow arms transfers to the Syrian opposition.
But European Union action seemed unlikely before May, and the fresh U.S. help was certain to fall short of the strongest demands from the Syrian National Congress: drone strikes to disable Assad’s chemical weapon and missile capability; a no-fly zone requiring significant military operations; and a U.N. resolution that condemns Assad for attacks on Syrians.
“The technical ability to take specific action to prevent the human tragedy and suffering of innocent civilians, mostly women and children, is available in the form of specific intelligence and equipment,” the group said in a statement before the conference ended.
“Syrians understand that such ability is within the reach of a number of members of the Friends of Syria group, yet nothing serious has been done to put an end to such terror and criminality.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry planned to announce that the Obama administration was ready to provide up to $130 million in supplies, which could include body armor, armored vehicles, night vision goggles and advanced communications equipment.
Officials said the exact amount was being determined in consultation with the rebels and allies, but was expected to be at least $100 million.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss Kerry’s announcement.
Opening Saturday’s meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he wanted the conference to help bring peace to Syria, which has endured more than two years of civil war.
The United Nations estimates that the fighting has killed more than 70,000 people, many by the Assad government as it tries to repress the uprising.
“I hope this meeting will be helping to peace in Syria, to regional peace and global peace. At the end of the day, we are all working together to end the pains of Syrian people,” he said.
German’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, spoke of giving the opposition greater political power and concrete support. “That is how we are trying to ease the pain of the Syrian people,” he said. “A violent solution is not a solution, only a democratic one is a real solution.”
Kerry met with Davutoglu and Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib before the conference got underway.
In the latest clashes, Syrian troops backed by pro-government gunmen captured at least one village in a strategic area near the Lebanese border, activists and state media reported.
President Barack Obama has said he has no plans to send weapons or give lethal aid to the rebels, despite pressure from Congress, some administration advisers and appeals from the Syrian opposition leadership.
Since February, the U.S. has shipped food and medical supplies directly to the Free Syrian Army, but Obama recently expanded that include defensive military equipment.
Kerry’s announcement on Saturday was to be the first under that new authorization. So far, the U.S. has provided an estimated $117 million in nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition, according to the White House.
Some Arab states are supplying the rebels with arms, and Britain and France are leading a push to modify the European Union’s arms embargo on Syria to permit weapons transfers to the opposition.
The embargo is to expire at the end of May unless it is extended or revised.
Those in favor of the change say there have been no decisions on whether to actually supply the rebels with arms. They argue that allowing such transfers would increase the pressure on Assad. U.S. officials say they support testing this strategy.
Germany and the Netherlands, however, are said to be reluctant to support the step because they fear it would lead to further bloodshed.
Kerry said before leaving Washington that the conference aim was to get the opposition and all prospective donors “on the same page” with how Syria would be governed if and when Assad left power or was toppled.
The U.S. and its European and Arab allies are struggling to find ways to stem the escalating violence that has led to fears that chemical weapons may have been used. Despite international pressure, Assad has managed to retain power far longer than the Obama administration or its allies expected.
“We need to change President Assad’s calculation, that is clear,” Kerry told U.S. senators Thursday. He said the Assad government’s survival largely depends on the continued support it gets from Iran, its proxy Hezbollah, and Russia.
“That equation somehow has to change,” Kerry said.
The U.S. is not opposed to other countries arming the rebels, provided there are assurances the weapons do not get to extremist groups that have gained ground in the conflict.
Kerry said that Assad, his inner circle and supporters in Iran and Russia have yet to be persuaded to enter negotiations with the opposition and allow for a political transition.
He said he had not given up on persuading Moscow to reverse its support for Assad.
Kerry planned to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov next week in Brussels on the sidelines of a NATO-Russia Council meeting.
“My hope is still that the Russians can be constructive,” he said.