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FIRST ON CNN: White House signs off on new aid for Syrian rebels

By Elise Labott, CNN
updated 8:57 PM EDT, Tue April 9, 2013
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Move signals that the United States is wading further into the civil war
  • Package approved by National Security Council, details expected to be revealed next week
  • Aid expected to include equipment such as body armor, night vision goggles
  • Obama administration under pressure to boost direct aid to rebels

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama has signed off on a new package of nonlethal aid for Syrian rebels, U.S. officials tell CNN, signaling his administration is cautiously wading further into the conflict.

Officials said the White House approved the package at a meeting of the National Security Council last week.

The move reflects what officials describe as a ramped-up effort to change the military balance on the battlefield in Syria.

It follows a decision by Obama last month to send food and medicine to the rebels, the first direct U.S. support for the armed opposition.

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Other agencies have not been briefed on the final elements of the package, which is expected to be detailed at a White House meeting this week.

"We have no new decisions on assistance to announce at this point and continue to review every possible option that could help end the violence and accelerate a political transition," said Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman.

Officials said it is expected to include equipment such as body armor, night vision goggles and other military equipment that is defensive in nature, but could be used to aid in combat by Syrian rebels battling forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

The package being discussed, however, still falls short of the heavy weapons and high tech equipment sought by the rebels.

Obama's national security team and members of Congress have repeatedly urged the president to increase the direct aid for the rebels.

They argue such a step would strengthen the hand of moderate members of the opposition and make them less reliant on well-armed extremist elements within their ranks.

Secretary of State John Kerry has pushed for more aggressive U.S. involvement in Syria since taking office in February.

The move comes as Britain and France are leading efforts to lift a European Union arms embargo on Syria. Both have suggested they are prepared to join nations like Qatar is providing the rebels with weapons and are urging the United States to do the same.

A push last summer from CIA, Pentagon and State Department leaders was rejected by the White House. At least for now, it remains opposed to arming the opposition, fearing that U.S.-provided weapons could wind up in the wrong hands.

The Obama administration has funneled $385 million in humanitarian aid to Syria through international institutions and nongovernmental organizations.

In addition, Washington has provided more than $100 million to the political opposition and has pressed them to establish a leadership structure.

But the Syrian Opposition Council, the main Syrian opposition group, has roundly criticized the United States for refusing to provide badly-needed support to organize a transitional government and broaden its support inside Syria.

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