PARIS -- The United States is looking for more tangible ways to support Syria's rebels and bolster a fledgling political movement that is struggling to deliver basic services after nearly two years of civil war, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday.
Officials in the United States and Europe have said the Obama administration is nearing a decision on whether to provide non-lethal assistance to carefully vetted fighters opposed to Syrian President Basher Assad, and Kerry's comments indicated that the Americans are working to make sure that its aid doesn't fall into the wrong hands.
"We are examining and developing ways to accelerate the political transition that the Syrian people want and deserve," Kerry said. "We need to help them to deliver basic services and to protect the legitimate institutions of the state."
The Obama administration is concerned about military equipment falling into the hands of radical Islamists who have become a significant factor in the Syrian conflict and could then use that materiel for terrorist attacks or strikes on Israel. But they're equally fearful that Syrians tired of constant instability will lose faith in an opposition that can do little to improve their daily lives.
Assad "needs to know that he can't shoot his way out of this, and we need to convince him of that, and I think the opposition needs more help in order to do that," Kerry said.
A decision whether to vastly increase the size and scope of assistance to Assad's foes is expected by Thursday when Kerry will attend an international conference on Syria in Rome that leaders of the opposition Syrian National Coalition have been persuaded to attend, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the shift in strategy has not yet been finalized and still needs to be coordinated with European nations, notably Britain.
France, Syria's former colonial ruler, has been among the strongest supporters of the rebels, and French President Francois Hollande was the first Western leader to recognize their leadership.
"We agree all of us on the fact that Mr. Basher al-Assad has to quit," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Officials in Washington said the United States was leaning toward providing tens of millions of dollars more in non-lethal assistance to the opposition, including vetted members of the Free Syrian Army who had not been receiving direct U.S. assistance. So far, assistance has been limited to funding for communications and other logistical equipment, a formalized liaison office and an invitation to opposition coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib to visit the United States in the coming weeks. It could be expanded to include pre-packaged meals and medical supplies.
The officials stressed, however, that the administration did not envision American military training for the rebels nor U.S. provision of combat items such as body armor that the British are advocating.
Syria's rebels get most of their arsenal from capturing government bases, but they also are believed to receive help from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Kerry, who spent summers in France as a child and speaks the language fluently, chatted in French with Hollande and opened his public remarks in the language.
"Now I have to speak in English or they won't let me go back home," he said.