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‘Friends of Syria’ meeting adds pressure: What is US ready to do?

Other countries and the Syrian rebels are awaiting specifics about new US aid, but President Obama is still weighing what steps to take and how far to go, reflecting continuing deep divisions across the administration.

By Staff writer / June 21, 2013

This Wednesday citizen journalism image, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other Associated Press reporting, shows homes damaged by Syrian government airstrikes and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, Syria.

Lens Young Homsi/AP

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Washington

Secretary of State John Kerry attends a meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Qatar Saturday where the coalition of countries supporting Syria’s opposition forces – as well as the opposition forces themselves – await fresh details of US policy, following President Obama’s decision last week to begin arming the Syrian rebels.

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The problem is, Mr. Obama is still weighing what steps to take and how far to go in aiding the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, reflecting continuing deep divisions across the administration.

Representatives of the Free Syrian Army said this week that they would press at Saturday’s meeting for heavy weapons such as antiaircraft missiles and for imposition of a no-fly zone over parts of Syria.

The Assad regime has stepped up its use of aerial bombardments of rebel-held territory in recent weeks, a move that has helped shift the war’s momentum in Mr. Assad’s favor, some military analysts say. But the shift has also resulted in a spike in casualties among civilians and rebel fighters.

Some rebel leaders scoffed at Obama’s decision to begin providing weapons as “too little, too late” after some US officials said privately that the aid would initially consist of small arms and ammunition and perhaps some anti-tank weaponry.

But administration officials are cautioning against expectations of any announcements from Secretary Kerry specifying what lethal assistance the United States will be providing – or of any US decisions on more complex and consequential steps, such as creation of even a partial no-fly zone.

People should expect the Qatar meeting “more to be a discussion” of the ongoing “decisionmaking process” on aid to the rebels and “how we can all work together to better coordinate” that assistance, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday. Kerry “will be discussing, to the degree he can, what [Obama’s decision] means, how to coordinate that, and [the] other options that we’re considering moving forward.”

On Friday, Ms. Psaki appeared to go a bit further, telling reporters that Saturday’s meeting was likely to include a discussion on how to coordinate military aid from different countries and how to “change the balance” on the ground in Syria.

Also on Friday, a Free Syrian Army spokesman told CNN that “brotherly nations that support the Syrian revolution” were starting to provide the rebels with the anti-tank and antiaircraft weaponry they need to “change the rules of the war on the ground.” But rebel military leaders insist they are receiving nothing near the heavy weaponry they need, and they continue to call on the US to provide such weapons.

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