ROME The United States may provide medical supplies and food directly to Syrian rebels for the first time, and a European diplomat held out the prospect of possible Western military support.
The diplomat, speaking on the margins of a meeting in Rome between the Syria's main civilian opposition and its Western and Arab backers, said the two sides would meet in Istanbul to discuss military and humanitarian support to the rebels.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was expected to announce new non-lethal assistance to opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Rome talks, but sources familiar with the matter said this would not extend to items such as bullet-proof vests, armored-personnel vehicles and military training for now.
The sources said providing medical supplies and food aid direct to the insurgents represented a policy shift.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman travelling with Kerry to the "Friends of Syria" meeting declined comment.
The Friends of Syria will condemn countries that provide weapons to Assad's government and denounce its use of Scud missiles within Syria, a source in the Rome talks said.
The Syrian government denies using the ballistic missiles.
Russia, a staunch ally of Syria, openly says it is supplying military equipment to Damascus, but opposition and Western countries also accuse Iran of sending weapons.
The U.S. policy shift would reflect a desire to do more to help the opposition in the conflict, in which an estimated 70,000 people have died since anti-Assad protests erupted nearly two years ago.
But it would stop far short of a full-blown military intervention, for which Washington appears to have no appetite.
The moves, however, might not satisfy some members of the Syrian National Coalition, which last week said it would boycott the conference out of frustration at not receiving more assistance, and only agreed to come on Monday.
They say Western reluctance to arm rebels only plays into the hands of Islamist militants now widely seen as the most effective forces in the struggle to topple Assad.
A coalition source said the planned U.S. steps were a continuation of what he described as an American policy of wanting "no winners, no losers" in the conflict.
He said that what he viewed as the relatively small size of the coalition delegation in Rome reflected strong expectations that the meeting would not come up with substantial support.
"There is a major current in the coalition that wanted to send a message that enough is enough and that the coalition will not go along with whatever the United States has in mind and (just) say 'thank you,'" the source said.
Even if Washington were to commit to supply weapons, there was no guarantee it would keep up the supply, the source said.
"Here and there, every once in a while the armed opposition get some decent weapons, but the supply is so patchy that it renders the weapons useless," he said.
"What is the use of a sophisticated gun for example without a constant supply of ammunition?"
The White House has long resisted providing weaponry to the rebel forces, arguing there was no way to guarantee the arms might not fall into the hands of militants who might eventually use them against Western or Israeli targets.
U.S. officials have said that the U.S. Defense and State Departments, under former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, privately recommended that the White House arm the rebels but were overruled.
"It's a huge debate inside the administration between those that have to deal with Syria on an everyday basis, the State Department and DoD particularly, and the White House, which ... until now has vetoed any kind of outreach to the armed groups," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank in the U.S. capital.
The United States has not so far given aid directly to the rebel fighters and a decision to provide medical supplies and food in the form of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), the U.S. army's basic ration, would reverse that policy.
Kerry, who took over as secretary of state on February 1, signaled that he wanted the United States to do more, saying on Monday that "the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is or if it's coming."
The source who said that the United States was expected to announce a large increase in assistance to the Syrian National Coalition said the group would receive substantially more than the rebel fighters, but declined to divulge either sum.
The United States so far has provided more than $50 million in non-lethal assistance such as communications gear and governance training to the Syrian civilian opposition, according to a U.S. State Department fact sheet.
The coalition source, however, said giving the coalition even another $50 million was a pittance compared to what he said was the $40 million a day in humanitarian aid needed to meet the basic needs of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons.
The United States has provided some $365 million in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and for internally displaced people, channeling this money through non-governmental organizations.
More than 40,000 people a week are fleeing Syria and the total number of refugees will likely pass 1 million in less than a month, far sooner than the United Nations had forecast, a senior U.N. official told the Security Council on Wednesday.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said his agency had registered 936,000 Syrians across the Middle East and North Africa, nearly 30 times as many as in April last year.
"We expected to have 1.1 million Syrian refugees by June. If things continue to accelerate like this, it will take less than a month to reach that number," he told the 15-member council.
(Editing by Alistair Lyon and Jon Boyle)