By Arshad Mohammed and Khaled Yacoub Oweis
ROME (Reuters) - The United States plans to provide medical supplies and food to Syrian fighters, a policy shift to directly help those battling President Bashar al-Assad's forces on the ground, sources familiar with the matter said.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States continues to oppose providing lethal assistance and said it also will not provide such items as bullet-proof vests, armored-personnel vehicles and military training for now.
One source said the United States was also expected to announce a large increase in assistance to the Syrian National Coalition, the main civilian opposition group.
The announcements could come as early as Thursday in Rome, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet coalition members at a "Friends of Syria" meeting of mostly European and Arab nations supporting the opposition.
The steps would reflect a U.S. desire to do more to help the opposition in the conflict, in which an estimated 70,000 people have died since protests against Assad erupted nearly two years ago, while stopping 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.
COALITION SOURCE DISMISSIVE
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 will 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?"
'HUGE DEBATE' IN OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
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 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.
"Until now we've drawn a very clear policy line away from armed groups and preferred to deal with civilians, he said, saying he did not know what the United States would ultimately decide.
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.
"Why would the policy change now? The answer is because it will have to. This policy is not succeeding ... Assad is not stepping down, the post-Assad Syria is not going to be peaceful, democratic and secular," he added. "So, given this reality, we have to deal with what's going to come next."
Kerry, who took over as U.S. 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.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman declined comment.
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Paul Simao)