US set to boost support for Syria opposition
The United States was set to boost its support for rebels battling Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday as world powers held key talks with the opposition in Rome.
The new US Secretary of State John Kerry met for about an hour with opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib before the 11-nation Friends of Syria meeting kicked off at the 16th-century Villa Madama on a hilltop above Rome.
Official statements were due at the end of the talks, but Kerry has already said the opposition needs "more help" in the fight against Assad and that Washington wants to speed up the crisis-hit country's political transition.
The Rome talks come two days before an important meeting of the main opposition National Coalition on Saturday in Istanbul, where the umbrella group is to elect a prime minister and government to run parts of Syria seized from Assad's control.
On the ground in Syria, rebels seized control of the Umayyad Mosque in the second city of Aleppo after days of fierce clashes that damaged the historic building, a watchdog reported.
Regime troops were forced to withdraw at dawn, taking up positions in buildings around the landmark structure, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Momentum has been building ahead of Thursday's Rome talks, with the opposition -- which initially vowed a boycott -- lured back to the meeting after the US and Britain promised specific offers of help.
In Paris as part of a European tour on Wednesday, Kerry made it clear Washington was ready to step up its support for the opposition.
"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.
He said he wanted to hear from opposition leader Khatib 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".
US media including The New York Times and Washington Post have reported that the "non-lethal" aid could include equipment such as vehicles, communications gear and night-vision goggles. The New York Times also reported that a US mission training rebels at a base in the region was already underway.
Pressure has been building for talks on ending the crisis, with Russia, Assad's most powerful supporter, this week urging both sides to sit down for negotiations.
In Moscow, French President Francois Hollande said ahead of a meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that a political solution to the Syrian crisis was possible within weeks.
"I think that in the next few weeks we will manage to find a political solution that will stop the conflict from escalating," Hollande told Echo of Moscow radio station in comments translated into Russian.
Hollande stressed Russia's key role as a member of the United Nations Security Council, where it has vetoed resolutions that would have put pressure on Assad to end hostilities.
"A lot will depend on the position of President Putin and on our position too, of course. We must finally start the process of political dialogue that has not yet started on the territory of Syria."
"President Putin and I both understand all the seriousness of the situation. And even though our positions at the moment differ, we want to find the best solution for Syria."
Thursday's Rome talks could provide some measure of whether the opposition, which has refused the idea of talks as long as Assad is in power, is ready to consider any form of talks with regime.
Officials from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were taking part in the talks, as well as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.