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U.S. Promises Food and Medical Help to Opposition Forces in Syria

February 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now to the conflict in Syria and a change in the United States’ role.

Ray Suarez explains.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY, United States: The United States has decided that, given the stakes, the president will now extend food and medical supplies to the opposition, including to the Syrian opposition’s Supreme Military Council. So there will be direct assistance to them, though non-lethal.

RAY SUAREZ: Word of the shift in U.S. policy came from Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome. The upshot, for the first time, humanitarian aid will be directly channeled to armed Syrian rebel groups, the initial installment, $60 million dollars.

JOHN KERRY: This funding will allow the opposition to reach out and help the local councils to be able to rebuild in their liberated areas of Syria, so that they can provide basic services to people who often lack access today to medical care, to food, to sanitation.

RAY SUAREZ: Additional pledges are expected from 10 other European and Arab nations attending the Rome gathering.

But after two years of war in Syria and more than 70,000 dead, what the rebels most want are guns. So far, the United States has refused, citing fears militant Islamists would benefit. In Rome today, the head of the Syrian Opposition Council, Mouaz Al-Khatib, urged the world to focus more on the victims of Syrian President Assad, and less on bearded Islamists.

MOUAZ AL-KHATIB, National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces: One month ago, the regime bombed 86 bakeries, where the flesh of the children was molded with the bread. Pay attention to this, instead of the fighters’ beards. Those who are fighting inside are mostly peaceful people who are forced to carry arms. All the terrorists in the world do not have this brutal nature of the regime against the Syrian people.

RAY SUAREZ: Several Persian Gulf states have long supplied arms and money to the rebels. Just this week, it was revealed Saudi Arabia has been sending them Croatian weapons.

The shift in U.S. policy comes as the Assad regime steps up its onslaught, using Scud missiles against civilian populations. And last night, The New York Times reported Americans are now training Syrian rebels at an undisclosed base in the region.

Meanwhile, as the battle for Damascus grows, in Syria’s south, refugees are streaming into Lebanon and Jordan. U.N. officials estimate nearly a million Syrians have fled the fighting.