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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.

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In London, Kerry offered a reminder that in his previous role as a US senator, he called on Mr. Obama to consider military aid to the rebels. That put Kerry in line with his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of whom last year encouraged Obama to drop his opposition to arming the rebels.

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Kerry said that as a member of the Senate, “I was one of those voices on the outside pushing for one thing or another.” Last May, Kerry called for creation of safe zones in Syria and for arming the rebels on the condition that the opposition become more united.

But in his comments in London, Kerry also suggested that some crucial decisions on aiding Syria rebels and what he calls “changing Assad’s calculus” are not likely to come until sometime after the Rome meeting.

He insisted that the Syrian opposition “is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is coming from,” but he also acknowledged that some proposal for assistance “may take a little more of a gestation period.”

One factor figuring in Kerry’s deliberations is the meeting he will hold in Berlin Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose government remains Mr. Assad’s firmest ally. It will be Kerry’s first meeting as secretary of State with his Russian counterpart, so it is unlikely that the two will be able to reach some kind of breakthrough on bringing the US and Russian approaches to Syria closer together, some regional analysts say.

The Kerry-Lavrov meeting “is going to be helpful in clearing the fog between the two sides, [but] I don’t think anything major is going to happen there,” says Michael Geary, a transatlantic-relations specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. It’s likely to take a “separate Kerry trip to Russia” or even a “serious sit-down” between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin for any progress toward a political solution, he says.

Kerry’s words at the Rome meeting may offer a clue as to whether Obama is shifting in his opposition to providing direct “lethal assistance” to the rebels.

In the meantime, some forces in the president’s party are showing signs of impatience with the Syria policy status quo. On Sunday, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel of New York, called on Obama to change course and provide American arms to the rebels.

Rejecting the administration’s justification for not arming the rebels, Representative Engel told ABC’s “This Week,” “We know who they are, and I think it’s time we make that move.”

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