DAMASCUS  - The parties to the Syrian war came under intense international pressure Wednesday to open direct talks to end their two-year conflict, on the eve of a Rome meeting of the Friends of Syria group.

The main opposition National Coalition, meanwhile, was preparing for a weekend gathering in Istanbul to elect a prime minister and government to run “liberated” parts of the country. But the combatants in Syria seemed deaf to the diplomatic activity, fighting and bombarding each other near Damascus as the regime renewed its campaign to suppress the insurgency, a watchdog reported.

US Secretary of State John Kerry hinted at greater US support for Syria’s opposition, saying it needs “more help” in the struggle against Bashar al-Assad and that Washington wants to speed up a political transition. In Paris on the eve of a meeting in Rome of the Friends of Syria group, Kerry said boosting support for the opposition would be a key part of the talks Thursday bringing together foreign powers and the main opposition National Coalition.

“We are examining and developing ways to accelerate the political transition that the Syrian people seek and deserve, and that is what we will be discussing in Rome,” Kerry said a joint press conference with French counterpart Laurent Fabius.

He said he wanted to hear from the opposition about how best to end the violence in Syria, where the United Nations says at least 70,000 have died and hundreds of thousands have been uprooted in the two-year conflict.

“That may require us to change president Assad’s current calculation. He needs to know he can’t shoot his way out of this,” Kerry said. “I think the opposition needs more help in order to be able to do that and we are working together to have a united position.”

Kerry said there was a desire to help the opposition deliver assistance and basic services in areas it has “liberated from the regime” and also to “protect the legitimate institutions of the state”.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the White House was considering a policy shift to supply rebels with “non-lethal” aid, including armoured vehicles and perhaps even military training. CNN ran a similar story on its website.

Kerry’s remarks also came ahead of a weekend opposition gathering in Istanbul to elect a prime minister and government to run “liberated” parts of Syria.

But combatants in Syria seemed deaf to the diplomacy, with fighting and bombardment reported near Damascus as the regime renewed its campaign to suppress the insurgency.

Kerry had on Tuesday met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks in Berlin and while initially at odds over the two-year-old conflict, Washington and Moscow have sought to find common ground.

Russia, the most powerful supporter of Assad, this week urged his regime to open talks to end the conflict, with Lavrov also urging the opposition to “declare itself in favour of dialogue”. Describing his Berlin meeting with Kerry as “constructive,” Lavrov said Syrian regime officials had “assured” Moscow they “have a negotiating team and are ready to start dialogue as soon as possible”. He urged the opposition also to name a negotiating team.

The umbrella opposition National Coalition cancelled a planned boycott of the 11-nation meeting in Rome after the US and Britain “promised specific aid to alleviate the suffering of our people”.

Meanwhile, Damascus has decided to renew the passports of any Syrians abroad, in an apparent concession after Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib demanded such a move as a condition for talks.

Washington is expected to use the Rome meeting to boost the morale of the opposition, which has grown frustrated at the lack of progress on the diplomatic front.

In Rome, “the Americans want to boost the opposition’s morale... because they are aware negotiations with the Russians could last several months,” said Karim Bitar of the French Institute of International and Strategic Studies.

On Saturday in Istanbul the Coalition is to appoint the head of an interim cabinet in a secret ballot. Among those tipped to fill the post are Burhan Ghalioun, the former head of opposition faction the Syrian National Council and ex-prime minister Riad Hijab who defected in mid-2012.

On the ground, fierce battles rocked towns near Damascus as the regime renewed its campaign to crush the insurgency around the capital, a watchdog said.

Tanks pounded the rebel-held town of Daraya, southwest of Damascus, while new clashes broke out in Irbin to the northeast, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

State television said “two mortar rounds fell near the Faculty of Literature in Damascus,” without elaborating.

Six rebels were killed near the police academy in Khan al-Assal, one of the regime’s last strongholds in the northern province of Aleppo that they have been fighting to seize for the past week.

Wednesday’s violence came a day after at least 134 people were killed across Syria, including 52 civilians, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground for its information.

The conflict has at times spilled over Syria’s borders, notably with Lebanon and Turkey, and a stray mortar shell landed in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday, Israel’s military said.