UK, US and allies will provide ‘urgent military support to Syrian rebels’

Syrian rebel ammunition
Syrian rebel ammunition

Substantial military support for opposition Syrian forces remains necessary, urged advocates Saturday during a meeting of the Friends of Syria group, a day after rebels disclosed receipt of advanced weapons they said could change the course of the war.

In the meantime, the BBC has reported that “Foreign ministers of the Friends of Syria group, who are meeting in Qatar, have agreed to provide urgent support to rebels who are fighting President Bashar al-Assad.”

The British broadcaster quoted Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani as saying that “providing arms may be the only means of achieving peace”.

US Secretary of State John Kerry told a meeting of the 11-country grouping in the Qatari capital Doha that support for Syrian rebels was not aimed at ensuring a military victory for them, but to strengthen them at proposed peace talks with Damascus.

He added that the Friends of Syria believe the talks, expected to be in Geneva this summer, represents an opportunity to negotiate an end to Syria’s 27-month conflict.

Kerry accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of “internationalizing” the conflict by seeking assistance from Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

“The United States and other countries here … will increase the scope and scale of assistance to the political and military opposition.”

Qatar, a staunch backer of the Syrian opposition, called on other countries represented in the Doha gathering to offer military aid to rebels fighting to oust al-Assad.

“Moral backing is not enough. We have to offer support to help Syrians face the regime troops,” said Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamd bin Jassim.

“A balance must be achieved on the ground so that the regime can accept negotiations.”

Al-Assad’s troops have, in recent weeks, regained several rebel-held areas, raising concerns among the opposition’s allies.

The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) has said it would demand more sophisticated weapons at the Doha meeting.

“From our part, the meeting will highlight the importance of sending more weapons and ammunition to the revolutionaries to help them confront attacks by the Syrian regime and their Hezbollah allies,” Samir al-Nashar, a member of the Syrian opposition, told dpa.

Earlier this month, the US, citing the use of chemical weapons by the al-Assad regime, announced it would give arms directly to the opposition forces.

The European Union’s arms embargo on Syria is to be lifted, but not until August.

Russia, Syria’s key arms supplier, this week warned the West that arms to Syrian rebels could end up in extremists’ hands.

The Friends of Syria group comprises Britain, France, the US, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Jordanian military officials, meanwhile, confirmed Saturday that Amman and Washington have expanded a year-old training programme for Syrian rebels.

The programme, once restricted to the detection and securing of chemical weapons, has been broadened to include the use of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles – the very arms the rebels say are needed to turn the tide of the conflict.

Washington dispatched some 2,000 additional military trainers and advisors to Jordan last week, military officials said, to train 5,000 FSA commanders and officers over the next month.

“Due to changes on the battlefield, a decision has been made on both sides to train more fighters, faster before it is too late,” a Jordanian military officer involved in the training said on condition of anonymity.

Abu Mohammed al-Darawi, an FSA commander, who sent 100 of his 800-strong battalion to take part in the training in the eastern Jordanian desert, claims the revamped drills included, for the first time, the use of heavy artillery such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles.

“For the first time we are using the very weapons that can defend ourselves against the regime’s arsenal,” al-Darawi told dpa. In Syria, opposition activists said government forces Saturday intensified attacks on pro-rebel areas around the capital Damascus.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said several buildings were damaged or gutted in a shelling attack by regime troops on the area of al-Qaboon north-east of Damascus.

The Observatory added that four government soldiers were killed when a shell landed in the district of al-Qadam south of Damascus.

At least 93,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, according to the United Nations.Authors: Weedah Hamzah, Taylor Luck, Ramadan Al-Fatash – dpa