ROME — The Obama administration said Thursday that it will provide the Syrian opposition with an additional $60 million in assistance and — in a significant policy shift — will for the first time provide nonlethal aid like food and medical supplies to rebels battling to oust President Bashar Assad.
"We need to stand on the side of those who want to see a free Syria," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said. "The stakes are really high and we can't risk letting this country in the heart of the Mideast being destroyed by vicious autocrats."
Kerry announced the new support and the decision to back the rebel fighters on the sidelines of an international conference on Syria in Rome, where European and Arab nations also signaled their intention to provide fresh assistance to the opposition.
"No nation, no people should live in fear of their so-called leaders," Kerry said.
Mouaz al-Khatib, leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, called on Assad to "for once in your life behave as a human being."
"Bashar Assad, you have to make at least one wise decision in your life for the future of your country," al-Khatib said.
Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi, who hosted the meeting, said: "We must go above and beyond the efforts we are making now. We can no longer allow this massacre to continue."
Terzi issued a statement earlier Thursday saying the foreign ministers recognized "the need to change the balance of power on the ground." He said the countries "will coordinate their efforts closely so as to best empower the Syrian people and support the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army in its efforts to help them exercise self-defense."
Kerry said the U.S. decision is designed to increase the pressure on Assad to step down and pave the way for a democratic transition. The aid is also intended to help the opposition govern newly liberated areas of Syria and blunt the influence of extremists.
"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."
He 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.
Kerry was asked if the U.S. contribution was enough to tilt the conflict the rebels' way. "We're doing this but other countries are doing other things," he replied, without going into specifics. "I am confident the totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals."
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.
The foreign ministers' presentation was disrupted by one protester who called on them to "stop supporting terrorists."