U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hinted at greater U.S. support for Syria's opposition on Wednesday, saying it needs "more help" in the struggle against President Bashar al-Assad and that Washington wants to speed up a political transition, AFP reports.
Speaking in Paris on the eve of a meeting in Rome of the Friends of Syria group, Kerry said boosting support for the opposition would be a key part of the talks Thursday bringing together foreign powers and the main opposition National Coalition.
"We are examining and developing ways to accelerate the political transition that the Syrian people seek and deserve, and that is what we will be discussing in Rome," Kerry said at a joint press conference with French counterpart Laurent Fabius, according to AFP.
He said he wanted to hear from the opposition about how best to end the violence in Syria, where the United Nations says at least 70,000 have died and hundreds of thousands have been uprooted in the two-year conflict.
"That may require us to change President Assad's current calculation. He needs to know he can't shoot his way out of this," Kerry said. "I think the opposition needs more help in order to be able to do that and we are working together to have a united position."
Kerry said there was a desire to help the opposition deliver assistance and basic services in areas it has "liberated from the regime" and also to "protect the legitimate institutions of the state."
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the White House was considering a policy shift to supply rebels with "non-lethal" aid, including armored vehicles and perhaps even military training.
Kerry's remarks also came ahead of a weekend opposition gathering in Istanbul to elect a prime minister and government to run "liberated" parts of Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday called for more support from the international community for Syria's opposition, saying the lack of a clear leader among the opposition was no reason to back Assad's "cruel" regime.
"The struggle of the opposition is important and should be appreciated. Their effort is the way to prepare the ground for a democratic process to take hold for the Syrian people," Erdogan said at a United Nations event in Vienna, according to AFP.
Kerry had on Tuesday met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks in Berlin and while initially at odds over the two-year-old conflict, Washington and Moscow have sought to find common ground.
Russia, the most powerful supporter of Assad, this week urged his regime to open talks to end the conflict, with Lavrov also urging the opposition to "declare itself in favor of dialogue."
The Syrian government said Monday it was "ready" for talks with rebels, “including those who are carrying arms," according to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem.
The umbrella opposition National Coalition cancelled a planned boycott of the 11-nation meeting in Rome after the U.S. and Britain "promised specific aid to alleviate the suffering of our people."
Meanwhile, Damascus has decided to renew the passports of any Syrians abroad, in an apparent concession after Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib demanded such a move as a condition for talks.
Washington is expected to use the Rome meeting to boost the morale of the opposition, which has grown frustrated at the lack of progress on the diplomatic front.
On Saturday in Istanbul the Coalition is to appoint the head of an interim cabinet in a secret ballot.
Among those tipped to fill the post are Burhan Ghalioun, the former head of opposition faction the Syrian National Council and ex-prime minister Riad Hijab who defected in mid-2012.
On the ground, fierce battles rocked towns near Damascus as the regime renewed its campaign to crush the insurgency around the capital, a watchdog told AFP.
The conflict once again spilled into Israel on Wednesday, as a shell fired from Syria hit the Golan Heights. The shell was found after residents of a local town reported hearing the whistle of incoming fire near their community.
IDF soldiers searched the area and found a shell that had not detonated. Sappers neutralized the device.