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Kerry, in Istanbul, joins quest for common ground on aid to Syrian rebels

Secretary of State John Kerry held a private meeting yesterday with Syrian opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib as the rebels and their foreign backers gathered in Istanbul in search of a unified strategy to break Syria’s civil war stalemate.

Kerry plans to announce additional nonlethal U.S. military aid for the rebel forces, stopping short of the sophisticated weapons they have requested. Senior administration officials said he is unlikely to give specifics, although President Obama has approved supplying items such as body armor and night-vision equipment.

The Obama administration is seeking additional assurances from opposition political leaders that aid recipients are fully vetted to ensure that both funds and supplies go to approved moderates rather than to Islamic extremist groups such as the al-Qaida-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra.

It would also like to see improvements in the performance of the political opposition, including an end to internal disagreements within the U.S.-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition.

In addition to providing $385 million in humanitarian assistance distributed through international aid organizations, the United States has already allocated $117 million to the opposition for military rations and medical supplies and to help it make greater progress in providing services and governance for parts of Syria now under rebel control.

Foreign ministers from 11 governments in Europe and the Middle East that are the opposition’s main backers are also here to discuss their own divisions. Britain and France have moved ahead of the United States in supplying nonlethal assistance to the rebel military. Together with the West, most governments in the Middle East believe that some among them that are supplying weapons – Qatar is the name that comes up most frequently – are allowing a portion of that aid to flow to Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist organizations.

European countries other than France and Britain remain staunchly opposed to the idea of giving arms to the rebels. In Istanbul yesterday, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said his government remains skeptical because of the possibility of weapons falling into the wrong hands, Reuters news service reported.

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