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Syria rebels to get direct non-lethal support from U.S. for 1st time, Secretary Kerry announces

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gestures as he speaks with the Syrian opposition's National Coalition chief Mouaz al-Khatib, during a meeting of the "Friends of the Syrian People (FOSP) Ministerial" group, Feb. 28, 2013, in Rome.
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Last Updated 8:42 a.m. ET

ROME U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that the Syrian Opposition Coalition was the "legitimate voice of the Syrian people," and for the first time will receive direct, non-lethal support from Washington. He warned that Syria's long-time dictator, President Bashar Assad, was an individual "out of time, and who must be out of power."

Kerry spoke in Rome alongside his Italian counterpart and the head of the Opposition Coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, on the sidelines of an international conference on Syria.

Secretary Kerry said that the U.S will not provide weapons or soldiers, but it will give food and medical supplies and pledge millions of dollars so that the Syrian opposition can begin to provide security and govern liberated parts of Syria.

"Today, on behalf of President Obama -- who has been very clear about the stakes in Syria -- I am proud to announce that the United States of America will be providing an additional $60 million immediately in non-lethal assistance to support the coalition in its operational needs day-to-day," Kerry said.

European nations were also expected to signal their intention to provide fresh assistance to the opposition.

Kerry said the U.S. decision was designed to increase pressure on Assad to step down and pave the way for a democratic transition. He said the aid was also intended to help the opposition govern newly liberated areas of Syria and blunt the influence of extremists.

"No nation, no people should live in fear of their so-called leaders," Kerry said.

"For more than a year, the United States and our partners have called on Assad to heed the voice of the Syrian people and to halt his war machine," Kerry said. "Instead, what we have seen is his brutality increase."

Kerry added, "The United States' decision to take further steps now is the result of the brutality of superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah."

Washington has already provided $385 million in humanitarian aid to Syria's war-weary population and $54 million in communications equipment, medical supplies and other nonlethal assistance to Syria's political opposition. The U.S. also has screened rebel groups for Turkey and American allies in the Arab world that have armed rebel fighters.

But until now, no U.S. dollars or provisions have gone directly to rebel fighters, reflecting concerns about forces that have allied themselves with more radical Islamic elements since Assad's initial crackdown on peaceful protesters in March 2011.

"Given the stakes, the president will now extend food and medical supplies to the Syrian opposition, including the Supreme Military Council," Kerry said Thursday.

The $60 million will go to Assad's political opposition. U.S. officials said the rations and medical supplies will be delivered to the rebels through their military council, and is to be distributed only to carefully vetted members of the Free Syrian Army.

The U.S. will be sending technical advisers to the Syrian National Coalition offices in Cairo to oversee and help them spend the money for good governance and rule of law. The advisers will be from non-governmental organizations and other groups that do this kind of work.

CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reports that the U.S. wants the opposition to counter the threat posed by Al Qaeda affiliates who have established control of cities inside Syria. European countries are considering giving military support, like night vision goggles and combat armor. Some of the Gulf countries are providing weapons.

But at this point the rebels say this assistance, while badly needed, is not what it has asked for in terms of building an Army to end the two-year war, said Brennan.

In December Mouaz al-Khatib told CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward that the international community has not done enough to help Syria.

"The international community fell short in its support to the Syrian people," he said. "For 20 months, the Syrian people have been killed, slaughtered ... The international community started to wake up now. Some organizations provided some modest aid, [and] we thank them for that. But, generally speaking, the international community has fallen short in providing that support."

He added that humanitarian aid should not be seen as charity. "The Syrian people have paid a high price, with its blood, to gain its freedom," Khatib said. "They are now claiming their dues from the international community. The faster this humanitarian aid, the more the country will be spared further turmoils."

Khatib also said that when the Assad regime falls, he expects the opposition coalition will be able to pick up the pieces in Syria. "I expect that there would be a good control on the ground because of the presence of hundreds of civil groups operating inside Syria," he said, "and they are organizing themselves for when that day comes. They are already securing bread distribution, traffic control ... they are preoccupied with setting up judicial committees ... security committees. The Syrian people has taken big steps in the establishment the 'day after' committees. I could not say that this is covering every single part of Syria, but it is widely developing."