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US expected to expand aid to Syrian rebels

President Obama is moving toward final approval of battlefield support for Syria’s military opposition, including nonlethal items such as body armor and night-vision goggles, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

The development comes as the State Department has pushed the White House to join allies such as Britain and France, which have said that they will expand their supplies to the Syrian rebels.

“The president has directed his national security team to identify additional measures so that we can increase assistance and coordinate with other countries,” a senior administration official said. A decision is due “in the coming weeks,” the official said. “There are a good number of details that still need to be worked out.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, in London for a meeting with the Group of Eight foreign ministers, heard pleas from the rebels for more aid and weapons as the humanitarian crisis and death toll escalate in Syria.

Kerry, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and others who conferred with the Syrian opposition group agreed to meet again in Turkey on April 20 to discuss further assistance to the outgunned rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The two-year-old civil war has left more than 70,000 dead and created more than 1 million refugees, according to the United Nations.

Kerry said this week that the Syrian stalemate had left “no choice” but to increase outside pressure on Assad. The secretary provided no details, saying that an announcement would come from the White House.

Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door meetings, said they did not believe additional nonlethal support, beyond already announced military meals and medical aid, would significantly alter the balance of the war. At the same time, there is concern that ratcheting up non-weapons support would increase demands to provide lethal aid, which Washington and the Europeans have refused.

But officials acknowledged that the United States has a credibility problem with the opposition that the provision of body armor and other battlefield assistance might help with.