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'Friends Of Syria' Countries Meet To Map Out Arming Rebels

Secretary of State John Kerry (front row, third from right) poses with foreign ministers of the "Friends of Syria" in Doha, Qatar.
AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State John Kerry (front row, third from right) poses with foreign ministers of the "Friends of Syria" in Doha, Qatar.

Update At 11:30 a.m. ET:

Secretary of State John Kerry called the current situation in Syria "unacceptable by anyone's standard" and lashed out at the government of President Bashar al-Assad for using Hezbollah in the fight against rebels.

"Assad chose to raise the stakes militarily," Kerry said. "He chose to attack the Syrian people, but this time using Iranian supporters and using Hezbollah, which is a terrorist organization.

"Neither side is going to back off helping those they've chosen to help, we understand that," he said of Russia's military assistance to the Assad regime. "The key is for us to use the leverage with people that we're helping to bring them to the table and achieve an appropriate negotiated solution."

Kerry said the group of ministers had pledged an additional $300 million in humanitarian aid to the rebels.

Update At 10:20 a.m. ET:

Reuters reports that the "Friends of Syria" group of ministers has issued a joint statement in Doha saying they agree to "provide urgently all necessary materiel and equipment to opposition on the ground."

Here's our original post:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives of 10 other countries are meeting in Qatar to coordinate military support to Syrian rebels vying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

The group, dubbed "Friends of Syria," is meeting in the Qatari capital, Doha, and includes European powers and regional Sunni Muslim-dominated countries. It could provide Syrian insurgents with the anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons they say they need to defeat Assad's military.

Quoting two Gulf sources, Reuters reports that Saudi Arabia has stepped up its lead role in arming the rebels.

"In the past week there have been more arrivals of ... advanced weapons. They are getting them more frequently," the source was quoted by Reuters as saying. Another source told Reuters that the latest supplies had the potential to top the balance in the rebels' favor even as Syrian government forces have been making significant gains on the battlefield.

The White House announced last week that it would provide direct military support to Syria's rebels after it said Assad's forces had used chemical weapons against the insurgents.

On Friday, the U.S. said it would base another 700 combat-ready military personnel in Syria's neighbor, Jordan, after already saying it would leave F-16 fighters and Patriot missiles there following the conclusion of a joint U.S.-Jordan military exercise.

NPR's Deborah Amos, reporting from Amman, says Jordan, on the front line of the conflict, has more than a half-million Syrian refugees.

She says that "rebels have confirmed to NPR that Jordan hosts a covert military-training program overseen by Western intelligence agencies."

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin cautioned the West against arming the rebels, saying their ranks included "terrorist" elements. The U.S. has said that one of the groups fighting Assad, al-Nusra, is a terrorist organization.

Putin, speaking on a panel in St. Petersburg, Russia, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel said if the U.S. already recognized al-Nusra as a terrorist group, "how can one deliver arms to those opposition members? ... Where will they end up? What role will they play?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.