The White House has asked lawmakers for US$500 million to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels, in what would be a significant escalation of US involvement in a conflict that has spilled into Iraq.
Following several signals in recent weeks by President Barack Obama's administration, and months of pressure from lawmakers including Senator John McCain, the White House said Thursday it intended to "ramp up US support to the moderate Syrian opposition."
The request is part of a US$1.5 billion Regional Stabilisation Initiative to bolster stability in Syrian neighbours Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and to support communities hosting refugees.
In a clear acknowledgement that Syria and Iraq face a common threat, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier "welcomed" strikes by Syria's air force on the Syrian side of the Al-Qaim border crossing, controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters. The jihadist group is also known as Isis.
The proposed US funding would serve "vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition to help defend the Syrian people, stabilise areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement," the White House said in a statement.
But Damascus ally Moscow lashed out at the move, saying: "There are better uses for these 500 million dollars."
The Americans "are moving things in their own direction; they keep the fire burning instead of doing something political", Russian ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said during a reception at the Russian mission.
The proposal was part of the US$65.8 billion overseas contingency operations request to Congress for the 2015 financial year, which begins on October 1. The bulk of that amount, US$58.6 billion, has been allocated to the Defence Department.
In a separate statement, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the funding "would build on the administration's longstanding efforts to empower the moderate Syrian opposition" and allow the Pentagon to increase its support to vetted armed rebels.
Washington has been studying options for providing assistance to rebel forces beyond the existing aid, which includes mainly "non-lethal" support.
While US officials normally refuse to comment on details of training for opposition groups, National Security Adviser Susan Rice acknowledged this month that the Pentagon was providing "lethal and non-lethal support" to Syrian rebels.
About US$287 million in mainly non-lethal support has been cleared for the rebels since March 2011, and the CIA has participated in a secret military training programme in Jordan for the moderate opposition.
Included in the latest request was a US$5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund to help build counterterrorism capacity in allies from South Asia to Africa's Sahel region.
Syrian government holding up food and medical aid, UN official says
The UN humanitarian chief accused the Syrian government of imposing "arbitrary restrictions and obstructions" on the delivery of aid and banning life-saving medical supplies from shipments to opposition-held areas.
Valerie Amos told the UN Security Council on Thursday that "some opposition groups have also attacked, threatened and refused to cooperate with humanitarian workers".
In a grim assessment, she said: "Violence and attacks on civilians by all parties to the conflict and human rights abuses continue unabated, with devastating consequences."
Amos said the number of Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance had increased from one million in 2011 to 10.8 million, jumping 1.5 million in just the last six months. But she said government policies had held up food aid for one million people in May, and just half of June's aid was dispatched.
"Four years into this war, we are unable to sustainably reach nearly half of those identified as being in the direst need," Amos said.