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John Kerry hints at more aid for Syria rebels. Does that mean arming them? (+video)

The answer could come Thursday, when Secretary of State John Kerry and other Western officials are to gather in Rome for a meeting with at least some of Syria’s divided opposition groups.

By Staff writer / February 25, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, not pictured, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London on Monday, during Kerry's first official trip overseas as secretary of State.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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Washington

More Western assistance for Syria’s rebels is in the works, according to Secretary of State John Kerry and the leaders he is meeting with at the outset of his nine-country trip through Europe and the Middle East.

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Secretary of State John Kerry urges Syrian opposition to attend Rome talks.

The crucial question for Syria’s opposition forces is whether that stepped-up aid would include arms for fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The answer could come Thursday, when Secretary Kerry and other Western officials are to gather in Rome for a meeting with at least some of Syria’s divided opposition groups.

The Obama administration is coming under increasing pressure at home – from Republicans and some Democrats – to reverse course and directly arm the rebels. So far the administration has provided only “nonlethal” assistance, arguing that some of the rebel groups are aligned with Al Qaeda or other groups unfriendly to the United States.

But on Monday in London – the first stop of his maiden overseas trip as President Obama’s top diplomat – Kerry said, “The moment is ripe for us to be considering what more we can do.” He added, “We are not coming to Rome simply to talk [but] to talk about next steps.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also offered a tantalizing preview of the Rome meeting, saying, “We must significantly increase support for the Syrian opposition, [and] we are preparing to do just that.”

The two diplomats’ hints appeared aimed at enticing a broad representation of Syria’s opposition organizations to attend the Rome meeting, being held by the Friends of Syria group of nations. On Saturday, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the largest part of Syria’s political opposition, announced that it was “suspending” its participation in the Rome meeting over what it called the “shameful” international inaction in the face of the Assad regime’s continuing attacks on the Syrian population.

In particular, the SNC cited last week’s bombing in Aleppo that killed dozens and that the opposition said was the result of a government Scud missile attack. The government blamed Al Qaeda-linked insurgents.

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