U.S. to Send Medical and Food Aid to Syrian Rebels For First Time

The United States has promised to send "non-lethal aid" directly to Syrian rebels, and is offering to train rebels at a base in the region. This marks the strongest American involvement to date in the Syrian conflict, and a policy shift toward direct help for those opposing President Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State John Kerry made the announcement earlier today in Rome, saying that Syrian President Assad is "out of time and must be out of power."

It's a cautious step on the part of the United States, falling far short of the high-tech weaponry and military gear that the rebels claim that they need, and some Syrian National Coalition members say that the cautious approach will just help the Islamist militants who are now seen as the most effective force in the attempts to topple Assad. One group that could take power at this time and poses major concern to the U.S. is the Al Nusra Front, which the United States believes is affiliated with Al Qaeda.

The man in charge of coordinating humanitarian assistance for the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, Adib Shishakly, said from the headquarters in Cairo:

"We expected more, but hopefully this is a positive start." He added the opposition is "absolutely disappointed" that the United States is not offering military assistance to the Free Syrian Army, when the Syrian government is escalating its use of force to include ballistic missiles and air strikes.

The U.K. and other nations working with the U.S. are expected to aid the rebel Free Syrian Army with battlefield equipment like armored vehicles and bullet proof vests. They'll also provide political and material support to the Syrian National Coalition, since one of the goals of the move is for the U.S. and allies to help the opposition build credibility within Syria by providing traditional government services to civilians.

Kerry also called for an immediate halt to "unabated" arms supplies to Damascus by third countries, referring especially to Assad's allies in Russia and Iran. It also requested that indiscriminate attacks on populated areas cease.

The U.S. has already provided more than $50 million in non-lethal assistance like communications gear and training, as well as $365 million in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon through NGOs. More than 40,000 people a week are fleeing Syria, with the number most likely to reach a million in less than a month, and more than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, which began with peaceful anti-Assad protests nearly two years ago.

[Reuters, image via Getty]