US President Barack Obama (right) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet for talks in Seoul
US President Barack Obama (right) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in Seoul. The two leaders have agreed on the need to send "non-lethal" aid to Syrian rebels, including communications equipment, a US official said. © Jewel Samad - AFP
US President Barack Obama (right) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet for talks in Seoul
AFP
Last updated: March 25, 2012

US and Turkey agree to send 'non-lethal' aid to Syria rebels

US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed Sunday on the need to send "non-lethal" aid to Syrian rebels, including communications equipment, a US official said.

The two men agreed that a "Friends of Syria" group meeting on April 1 in Turkey should work on furnishing aid and medical supplies, as they met in South Korea, said US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

Washington has said several times that it is looking at providing non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whom the United States says should step down.

The rebels are badly outgunned by Syria's armed forces but the White House has said that it does not favour arming them, arguing that further "militarising" the conflict would worsen civilian bloodshed.

"We are very much in agreement that there should be a process whereby a transition to a representative and legitimate government in Syria takes place," Obama said.

Erdogan noted that 17,000 refugees had fled to Turkey from Syria since an uprising last year was met with lethal force by Assad's forces in a crackdown that has killed around 9,000 people and now looks more like a civil war.

"Of course, as human beings, people with conscience, we cannot remain a spectator to these developments, which are things that we have to be doing something about within the framework of international law," Erdogan said.

However the Obama administration appears to fear that any weapons sent to Syria would be at risk of falling into the wrong hands, and does not appear to have full confidence in rebel groups or a clear picture of their makeup.

"Given the uncertain nature of elements of the opposition, we're not discussing supplying lethal support," Rhodes said.

"But there's a range of things we can do, and the humanitarian, non-lethal side of things that could make a positive difference for the Syrian people and the opposition."

Washington has also ruled out unilateral military action in Syria, and says there is no coalition favouring multilateral action like that which ousted Libya's Moamer Kadhafi last year.

But Rhodes said that Erdogan and Obama did talk about the need to send a strong message to those around Assad that he will not dictate Syria's future, in an apparent effort to spark defections from his inner circle.

The two leaders also on Sunday discussed Iran, with Obama reiterating a warning he made earlier this month that the "window" for diplomacy to end a showdown with the Islamic republic over its nuclear programme was closing.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said earlier this month that the United States was looking at providing non-lethal aid such as radio equipment to help opposition forces in their fight against Assad's regime.

But he declined to go further in a public forum.

Obama and Erdogan met for an hour and forty-five minutes in South Korea, as fighting escalated in Syria, with blasts rocking the flashpoint city of Homs.

Rebels meanwhile attacked a military base in Damascus province, activists and monitors said.

As the year-old conflict showed no signs of abating, rebel fighters set up a military council to unify their ranks and political opposition leaders called a meeting of all dissident groups to forge common objectives.

The latest violence came as UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was in Moscow to seek the vital backing of Russia, a key ally of the Syrian regime, for his plan to end the bloodshed.

There are growing signs that Moscow is beginning to lose patience with Assad, despite his commitment to massive new Russian arms purchases and the granting of key naval access to the Mediterranean.

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