The United States is set to boost its support for Syria’s rebels at a meeting of the opposition’s main foreign backers Saturday and could for the first time agree to supply non-lethal military gear.

But Washington is expected to stop short of agreeing to rebel demands for arms as the 11-nation core group of the “Friends of Syria” hold talks in Istanbul with key figures in the opposition battling President Bashar al-Assad.

After arriving in Istanbul, US Secretary of State John Kerry met first with the head of the main opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib. Top diplomats from the 11 countries - including the US, European nations and Arab countries - then began their meeting, to be followed by a working dinner with the opposition.

Ahead of the talks, a senior US official said Kerry would discuss increasing assistance to “moderate opposition groups” including the Coalition and the rebel Supreme Military Council.

US media reports have suggested Washington is preparing to provide protective battlefield equipment to the rebels such as body armour, armoured vehicles and night-vision goggles, as well as communications gear. But such supplies may hinge on the opposition showing it can be more inclusive, protect minorities and respect human rights.

In a statement, the opposition Coalition made clear it wanted support beyond humanitarian assistance. “While humanitarian aid is a dire necessity, the Syrian opposition is also looking for support that will enable the immediate fall of the regime and an end to the suffering of the Syrian people,” the statement said.

Fierce battles raged on Saturday in flashpoint areas of Syria’s central province of Homs near the Lebanese border, a watchdog said, adding that six shells fell across the border in Lebanon.

Elsewhere, battles raged near Damascus, where at least 90 people, many of them rebels, were killed in four days of fighting against government forces in Jdaidet al-Fadl, said the Observatory.