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Kerry seeks to coordinate aid to Syrian rebels

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry disembarks from his plane as he arrives in Doha, June 22, 2013. REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry disembarks from his plane as he arrives in Doha, June 22, 2013. REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool

By Lesley Wroughton and Yara Bayoumy

DOHA (Reuters) - Washington wants Western and Arab allies to commit to directing all aid to Syrian rebels through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, a senior U.S. official said before talks in Qatar on Saturday, to try to reduce the power of jihadi groups.

Speaking before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Doha for the meeting with European and Arab foreign ministers, the official said the United States was also seeking to ensure that aid promises for the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict are honored.

U.S. President Barack Obama announced last week that Washington would step up military aid to rebels following a series of counter-attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, including the recapture of a strategic border town in an offensive led by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

Rebels say they urgently need advanced arms, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, to stem Assad's advance.

Western countries hope by channeling assistance through the council - the rebel military leadership headed by General Salim Idriss, a former commander in Assad's army - they can reduce the influence in the opposition ranks of radical Islamist groups such as the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

The meeting in Qatar brings together ministers of 11 countries that make up a pro-rebel alliance - France, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Britain and the United States.

"The goal of the meeting is to be very concrete about the importance of all assistance, every kind of assistance that is coming from 11 countries," the senior U.S. official told reporters travelling with Kerry.

"It is important that it be fully coordinated and go through only the Syrian opposition coalition, specifically the Supreme Military Council," the official said.

PEACE TALKS A DISTANT PROSPECT

British Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated that London had yet to take a formal decision on arming the rebels, but said that only by strengthening the opposition could the West hope to bring about talks for a political settlement.

"We won't get a political solution if Assad and his regime think they can eliminate all legitimate opposition by force, and so we do have to give assistance to that opposition," he told reporters before the start of Saturday's talks.

The United States and Russia, which back opposing sides in the conflict, hope to bring them together for negotiations in Geneva originally scheduled for this month. Hague said there was little prospect of that happening "in the next few weeks".

"This crisis is on a worse trajectory, it is set to get worse ... I don't want to underestimate the severity and the bleakness of it," Hague said.

Moscow, which says it will not break off military supply contracts with Damascus, opposes arming rebel forces which it says include terrorist groups, and has warned that a swift exit by Assad would risk a dangerous power vacuum.

Before his departure from Washington, Kerry spent Thursday briefing Congress on the administration's Syria plans, with some lawmakers pressing for the United States to do more and others decrying any deeper involvement in the civil war.

Having withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq and working to wind down American forces in Afghanistan, some lawmakers are wary of getting involved in another costly conflict. Some worry that the weapons could end up in the hands of radical Islamist groups who could one day use them against Western interests.

Until now the United States has been providing non-lethal aid - food and medicine - to the rebels.

The United Nations launched a $5 billion humanitarian aid effort for Syria two weeks ago, its biggest ever. The United States has promised more than $300 million to address the crisis and help neighboring countries cope with 1.6 million refugees who have fled the civil war.

During his trip, which includes seven countries, most of them in the Middle East, Kerry will also raise Washington's concerns in talks in Saudi Arabia on June 25 about the funding of extremist rebel groups in Syria and the presence of foreign fighters from Hezbollah and Iran in helping Assad's forces.

Saudi Arabia recently expanded its weapons supply to the rebels to include anti-aircraft missiles. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah cut short his holiday to fly home a week ago and warned of "repercussions of events in the region", in an apparent reference to the Syrian crisis.

While in Qatar, Kerry will also meet authorities to discuss the planned talks between the United States and Taliban in Doha, though he will not meet Taliban representatives.

The talks, which will be led by U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins, were to have taken place last Thursday but were temporarily delayed by tensions over the naming of a new Taliban office in Doha which prompted outrage from Kabul.

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Pravin Char)

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