The Obama administration said Thursday that it will provide the Syrian opposition with an additional $60 million in assistance and -- in a significant policy shift -- will for the first time provide nonlethal aid like food and medical supplies to rebels battling to oust President Bashar Assad.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the new support and the decision to back the rebel fighters on the sidelines of an international conference on Syria in Rome, where European nations were also expected to signal their intention to provide fresh assistance to the opposition, possibly including defensive military hardware.
"No nation, no people should live in fear of their so-called leaders," Kerry said.
He said the U.S. decision is designed to increase the pressure on Assad to step down and pave the way for a democratic transition. The aid is also intended to help the opposition govern newly liberated areas of Syria and blunt the influence of extremists.
Kerry said Assad "is out of time and must be out of power."
"For more than a year, the United States and our partners have called on Assad to heed the voice of the Syrian people and to halt his war machine," Kerry said. "Instead, what we have seen is his brutality increase."
Kerry added, "The United States' decision to take further steps now is the result of the brutality of superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah."
Washington has already provided $385 million in humanitarian aid to Syria's war-weary population and $54 million in communications equipment, medical supplies and other nonlethal assistance to Syria's political opposition. The U.S. also has screened rebel groups for Turkey and American allies in the Arab world that have armed rebel fighters.
But until now, no U.S. dollars or provisions have gone directly to rebel fighters, reflecting concerns about forces that have allied themselves with more radical Islamic elements since Assad's initial crackdown on peaceful protesters in March 2011.
"Given the stakes, the president will now extend food and medical supplies to the Syrian opposition, including the Supreme Military Council," Kerry said Thursday.
The $60 million will go to Assad's political opposition. U.S. officials said the rations and medical supplies will be delivered to the rebels through their military council, and is to be distributed only to carefully vetted members of the Free Syrian Army.
The U.S. will be sending technical advisers to the Syrian National Coalition offices in Cairo to oversee and help them spend the money for good governance and rule of law. The advisers will be from non-governmental organizations and other groups that do this kind of work.