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U.S. weighing nonlethal aid to Syrian opposition

By Elise Labott, CNN
updated 5:21 AM EST, Wed February 27, 2013
  • Changes are under discussion with allies, too, a senior administration official says
  • Sources say the United States is not considering providing weapons
  • The United States may remove restrictions on "dual-use" equipment, another source says
  • "They are doing a redefinition of what is lethal," the source says

Washington (CNN) -- The Obama administration is moving toward increasing aid to the Syrian opposition, including providing nonlethal military equipment and possibly strategic military training, sources told CNN Tuesday.

The changes are under discussion with allies as well, as part Secretary of State John Kerry's meetings this week in Europe, a senior administration official said.

The sources said the United States is not considering providing weapons.

The administration is also moving toward giving humanitarian aid directly to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the official said, adding that this was already happening in limited amounts.

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The consideration was first reported on Tuesday by The Washington Post.

The United States is also looking to remove restrictions on "dual-use" equipment, such as those involving communications, body armor, flak jackets, night-vision equipment and military vehicles, according to another source familiar with the policy discussions.

Such items are defensive in nature, but they could be used to aid in combat. The training would be intended to help rebels allocate resources and set objectives, strategize and possibly train a potential police force, the source said.

"They are doing a redefinition of what is lethal," the source said. "They have been working on this for a while."

The source said the United States is also helping the new Syrian government in exile get on its feet by developing government institutions, strategic communications and outreach.

The increase is being done in coordination with the Europeans. A senior European diplomat said that though the European Union is not lifting its arms embargo against Syria, its members are moving to loosen restrictions on nonlethal military aid -- including night-vision goggles, body armor and possible military training. Each EU nation would decide on its own what to supply, the official said.

Reversing course, Syrian opposition group to attend Rome conference

In meetings on his first official trip, Kerry has focused on Syria. He met Tuesday with German officials and with Russia's foreign minister. Their two-hour discussion included Syria, said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

On Thursday, Kerry travels to Rome for a meeting of countries supporting the opposition.

Kerry was involved in an effort to keep the Syrian opposition -- upset by the government's attacks on Aleppo and a perceived lack of movement by other countries to prevent it -- from following through on an announced boycott of the Rome meeting.

The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, flew Sunday to Cairo to talk to the opposition and Kerry spoke Monday by phone with the group. By Monday evening, the group announced it would attend Thursday's meetings.

"We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is or if it is coming, and we are determined to change the calculation on the ground for President (Bashar al-Assad)," Kerrry said Monday in London.

Until recently, the loosely coordinated rebel movement was heavily outgunned by al-Assad's military forces, who leveraged superior weaponry and an air force.

But rebels have made significant gains recently. As foreign countries have funneled more weapons to the opposition, rebels have seized control of greater territory, and the fighting has moved closer to the capital of Damascus, according to opposition fighters.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia was supplying the rebels with Croatian weapons funneled through Jordan.

"Indeed, we procured new anti-aircraft and heavy defensive weapons donated from Arab and non-Arab countries recently," Louay Almokdad, political and media coordinator for the Free Syrian Army, told CNN on Sunday. "But they are not enough to stand against the regime's forces at this point."

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CNN's Amir Ahmed contributed to this report.

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