NEW: "All the necessary materiel" will be provided to the opposition, the group says
NEW: "Each nation makes its own decision," State Secretary John Kerry says
NEW: Kerry vows to boost the opposition's ability "to directly address the situation on the ground"
Syrian government forces have rebels outgunned
Foreign ministers from 11 countries meeting here cited the presence of foreign fighters in the country and the alleged use of chemical weapons by Damascus in agreeing Saturday to increase arms shipments to the rebels.
In a statement, the ministers representing the “London 11,” an offshoot of the “Friends of Syria,” said they would “provide urgently all the necessary materiel and equipment to the opposition on the ground, each country in its own way in order to enable them to counter brutal attacks by the regime and its allies and protect the Syrian people.”
The weapons are to be funneled through the opposition Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council (SMC).
The alleged use of chemical weapons, which President Bashar al-Assad has denied, and the involvement of Hezbollah and Iran left the participants no choice “but to provide greater assistance of one kind or another, each nation making its own decision as to what it is comfortable doing, but all of them committing to do more to help the Syrian opposition,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters.
Kerry called for a political settlement, not a military one, even as he expressed support for aiding the opposition. “President Obama made it clear that, as a result of the crossing of the red lines and the use of the chemical weapons, he was going to provide assistance that he hasn’t provided before,” Kerry said without specifying what that aid would include.
“We have said today very clearly we are going to step up in order to provide the capacity to the SMC and to the Syrian opposition to be able to directly address the situation on the ground – now, that’s as specific as I can be.”
Kerry said he hoped that plans for a second conference in Geneva would soon coalesce. The United States and Russia announced on May 7 they would try to bring the warring parties to a Geneva-2 conference to implement the peace plan they endorsed a year ago – at what has come to be called Geneva-1 – that left open the question of whether Assad must leave power.
But in their statement on Saturday, the ministers reiterated their call for negotiations that would lead to the establishment of a transitional governing body “that excludes the central figures and associates whose hands are stained with blood. In this context, Bashar al-Assad has no role in the transitional governing body or thereafter.”
“The implementation of Geneva-1 is the goal of Geneva-2, and that is a transition government with full executive authority, which gives the Syrian people as a whole, everybody in Syria, the chance to have a new beginning where they choose their future leadership,” Kerry told CNN last week.
Next week, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Ambassador Robert Ford will meet with their Russian counterparts and Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.and Arab League special envoy to Syria, to set a date for the meeting, Kerry said.
The broadening of the conflict and the possibility that it will devolve into a sectarian war raise concerns that the conflict will widen beyond Syria’s borders, he said. “It is our hope that, indeed, we will avoid a regional war.”
Kerry noted that Moscow has been sending arms to the government in Damascus, but said he believed that President Vladimir Putin was prepared to support the Geneva meeting.
The diplomatic group, known as the London Eleven, met in Doha to figure out how to shift the balance of power on the Syrian battlefield away from al-Assad and toward the opposition.
Al-Assad has the upper hand militarily, due to his access to air power and heavy artillery, including tanks. Rebel forces have no air power and few heavy weapons.
But Syrian rebels said this week that they have received anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles from “brotherly nations that support the Syrian revolution.”
Washington is providing more than $815 million in humanitarian assistance to victims of the conflict and has committed $250 million in nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition.
The CIA is training Syrian rebel forces at bases in Jordan, according to senior U.S. officials.
Combatants from other countries are also aiding the opposition.
Foreign Sunni militants are joining the ranks of the rebels. One of the largest groups, the al-Nusra Front, is affiliated with al Qaeda in neighboring Iraq.
Some 5,000 Shiite fighters from Hezbollah have taken up arms in Syria in support of the government, according to Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.
The 11 comprise the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The meeting is the first leg of a tour of the Middle East and Asia by Kerry that will include visits to U.S. allies Israel and India.
CNN’s Tom Watkins wrote and reported from Atlanta; Reza Sayah reported from Doha. CNN’s Barbara Starr and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.