State Department drops criticism of arms flow to Syria rebels

"I'm not sure that I can pinpoint, or draw a line in the sand," said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell when asked if the administration had changed its stance on allies providing lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition.

Ventrell said there was "an evolving situation on the ground” and spoke of White House concerns over civilian casualties.

Assad has responded to the uprising with brutal force, often indiscriminately targeting civilians despite international condemnation.

“Look, these are citizens who are having Scuds [missiles] rain down on their heads, and literally being, you know, slaughtered by their own regime,” Ventrell said. “And so obviously civilian protection is something that's being taken into account. We consistently evaluate whatever available, practical and responsible means can end the suffering of the Syrian people.”

Last week, Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryKerry: Trump's rhetoric gave North Korea a reason to say 'Hey, we need a bomb' Russian hackers targeted top US generals and statesmen: report Trump officials to offer clarity on UN relief funding next week MORE said the United States “does not stand in the way of other countries that have made a decision to provide arms.”

Kerry met Wednesday with the foreign minister of France, a country that has joined Britain in calling for an end to the European Union embargo on arms to Syria.

The White House has so far refused to provide arms to the rebels out of fear they will end up in the hands of Islamist militants, but lawmakers on Capitol Hill are increasingly calling for a change in policy. They say the Assad government is getting arms from Russia and Iran, while Islamist militants are also heavily armed.

Meanwhile, a group of countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — issued a declaration reaffirming their "opposition to any further militarization of the conflict.”

The statement from the group, which goes by "BRICS,” came after a personal appeal from Assad, who told them that a peaceful resolution “requires a clear international will to drain the sources of terrorism and stop its arming and funding.”

The five countries are “a hope for our oppressed peoples that suffer from blatant foreign interference in their affairs against their interests,” Assad wrote to South African President Jacob Zuma, who is presiding over the group's fifth summit this week.

Ventrell dismissed Assad's letter, noting that the Arab League at its summit this week recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representatives of Syria.

"Really what this highlights is the overwhelming isolation of the Assad regime," he said. "You've seen them flailing for the last shred of support they can garner, which is very limited."

Here is the full BRICS statement on Syria:

We express our deep concern with the deterioration of the security and humanitarian situation in Syria and condemn the increasing violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law as a result of continued violence. We believe that the Joint Communiqué of the Geneva Action Group provides a basis for resolution of the Syrian crisis and reaffirm our opposition to any further militarization of the conflict. A Syrian-led political process leading to a transition can be achieved only through broad national dialogue that meets the legitimate aspirations of all sections of Syrian society and respect for Syrian independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty as expressed by the Geneva Joint Communiqué and appropriate UNSC resolutions. We support the efforts of the UN-League of Arab States Joint Special Representative. In view of the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria, we call upon all parties to allow and facilitate immediate, safe, full and unimpeded access to humanitarian organisations to all in need of assistance. We urge all parties to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers.