BEIRUT: The U.S. is doubling its non-lethal aid to opposition forces in Syria to $250 million, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Sunday, falling short of opposition demands for military aid.
At the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul late Saturday, the Syrian National Coalition called on international backers to carry out "surgical strikes" on positions used by President Bashar Assad's regime to fire missiles on civilians.
While this latest U.S. aid package will not include arms, Kerry said Sunday that the rebels' foreign backers were committed to continuing support to them and "there would have to be further announcements about the kind of support that that might be in the days ahead" if Syrian government forces failed to pursue a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Kerry also said that foreign backers have agreed to channel all future assistance through the rebels' Supreme Military Council.
A U.S. official said Friday that new non-lethal U.S. aid could include for the first time battlefield support equipment such as body armor and night-vision goggles. U.S. officials have said in the past that the equipment could include armored vehicles and advanced communications equipment, but Kerry gave no specifics.
"It is the moral imperative of the international community, led by the Friends of Syria, to take specific, precise and immediate action to protect Syrian civilians from the use of ballistic missiles and chemical weapons," the Coalition said Saturday in a statement.
It called for "surgical strikes of launching locations by unmanned aerial vehicles".
The Coalition statement also called for the enforcement of a no-fly zone along Syria's northern and southern borders, an international fund to support the opposition and a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the use of "ballistic and chemical weapons against civilians."
The 11-nation core group of the Friends of Syria -- including the United States, European nations and Arab countries -- was holding talks and meeting with the opposition in Istanbul late Saturday.
"Today, it's safe to say that we are really at a critical moment," Kerry said Sunday.
"The stakes in Syria couldn't be more clear: Chemical weapons, the slaughter of people by ballistic missiles and other weapons of huge destruction. The potential of a whole country, a beautiful country with great people, being torn apart and perhaps breaking up into enclaves (with the) potential of sectarian violence which this region knows there is too much of.
"What we are trying to do is to avoid all of that. And we committed to - we recommitted - because we think there are some people who don't believe that we believe it, or are in fact are committed to it," he said.
Kerry referred to a statement issued after the meeting by Syria's main opposition National Coalition in which it pledged not to use chemical weapons, rejected "all forms of terrorism" and vowed that weapons it attains would not fall into the wrong hands.
"We will not tolerate or allow acts of revenge and retribution against any group in Syria," the opposition coalition said in its declaration.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the declaration was "the clearest language" yet from the opposition in renouncing radical groups and committing to a democratic solution.
Speaking Sunday, he said the European Union will discuss the question of easing an arms embargo preventing weapons supplies to the rebels in the coming weeks.
"This is a discussion we have to have in the EU over the next six weeks. We and France have said there will be a strong case for lifting the embargo, amending the embargo," Hague told reporters.
A Syrian government daily on Sunday accused the United States of having "thrown oil on the fire" of the country's conflict by doubling its aid to the opposition.
"The meeting of the so-called 'Friends of Syria' held in Istanbul yesterday has thrown oil on the fire of the Syrian conflict," said Al-Watan.
"The statements were not surprising, given that Washington has opted since the start of the crisis to line up with armed groups by giving them political, financial and military support," it added.
On the ground in Syria, at least 69 people, many of them rebels, were killed in a four-day battle pitting insurgents against government forces in Jdaidet al-Fadl near Damascus, a monitoring group said Saturday.
"Regime troops are trying to seize total control of the town of Jdaidet al-Fadl" southwest of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"Sixty-nine people were killed in violence raging there over the past four days," added the Britain-based watchdog, citing activists on the ground, who said many were killed in shelling and also in summary executions by the army.
The bodies of 28 of the victims, including three children and three women, were found in a hospital, the Local Coordination Committees – another activist group – reported Sunday.
Regime shelling continued across the country Sunday, the LCC said, including in the suburbs of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Idlib and Deir Al-Zor.
By early afternoon, at least 32 people had been killed across the country, including one woman and six children. – With agencies