WASHINGTON - The United States is poised to significantly expand its nonlethal military aid to the Syrian opposition as European nations weigh easing an arms embargo to potentially supply the rebels with arms and increase pressure on President Bashar Assad.
The European Union arms embargo expires at the end of May and may be allowed to expire or be modified to only block weapons that are headed to Assad's government.
If that happens, it will amount to a new threat to give weapons to the rebels, and test whether the Syrian president reacts to the increased pressure - or if stronger international intervention might be tried.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to announce plans today to give opposition forces up to $130 million in defensive military supplies - possibly including body armor, armored vehicles, night vision goggles and advanced communications equipment.
U.S. officials said exactly what is given, and how much it will cost, will be determined today at a meeting Kerry will attend in Istanbul, Turkey, of the Syrian opposition leadership and their main international allies.
On Thursday, Kerry said the conference aims to get the opposition and all prospective donors "on the same page" with how Syria will be governed if and when Assad leaves power or is toppled.
"The hope is that that will then create a confidence level about who is getting what kind of aid from whom," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
With Syria's civil war in its third year, the U.S. and its European and Arab allies are struggling to find ways to stem the violence that has killed more than 70,000 people, according to the United Nations.
Despite international pressure, Assad has managed to retain power far longer than the Obama administration first expected.
Despite pressure from Congress and even advisers within his own administration, President Obama has said he has no plans to send weapons or give lethal aid to the rebels.
Instead, the U.S. has been shipping food and medical supplies directly to the Free Syrian Army since February and later expanded the aid to include defensive military equipment.
So far, the U.S. has provided an estimated $117 million in nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition, said White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.