BEIRUT –Â€Â” Syrian rebels on Friday described the U.S. decision to provide them with arms as a “late step” and called for shipments to include heavy weaponry capable of tipping the balance of power on the battlefield.
The United States has said it would be “responsive to the needs” of the increasingly desperate rebels, but has not given details of what the assistance will include.
Initial consignments are expected to consist of small arms and ammunition, which the rebel Free Syria Army said on Friday would be largely “meaningless.” The Syrian Opposition Coalition called for “strategic and decisive” support.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, confirmed by the White House on Thursday, coupled with increasing gains on the battlefield by the Syrian military in recent days, have left the United States and European nations scrambling to reassess their Syria policies.
President Barack Obama had long said the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for his administration, but he lagged behind allies France and Britain in saying there was compelling evidence of their use. United States intelligence indicates that chemical attacks during the conflict have left as many as 150 dead.
U.S. officials are expected to meet with Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the rebel Supreme Military Council, over the next two days to discuss details of military assistance that Washington can provide. Rebel leaders said Idriss will urge the U.S. officials to offer a wider range of support.
“We welcome the decision, but it is a late step. And if they send small arms, how can small arms make a difference?” said Louay al-Mokdad, political and media coordinator for the Free Syria Army. “They should help us with real weapons, antitank and antiaircraft, and with armored vehicles, training and a no-fly zone.”
Some rebel leaders expressed doubt that any meaningful support would actually materialize.
“We have honestly lost hope,” said Mosab Abu Qutada, a spokesman for the rebel military council in Damascus. “We were promised a lot before, and they never kept their promises.”
In comments carried by the state news agency, the Syrian government said the White House’s statement on the use of chemical weapons was based on fabricated information and “full of lies.”
It accused the U.S. of a “flagrant double-standard policy” by providing arms, money and political cover to “terrorist groups,” while claiming it wants to combat terrorism. The Syrian government generally refers to rebel forces as “terrorists.”
Britain and France have also been weighing whether to arm the rebels, after a European Union arms embargo that prevented them from doing so expired at the end of May.
Following the announcement from Washington, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain would be “urgently” discussing a coordinated response to the crisis with the United States, France and other partners this week, including at the Group of Eight industrial nations summit in Northern Ireland next week. British officials, who were also meeting with Gen. Idriss on Friday, have stressed that a decision on arming the rebels will not be taken before the summit.
The White House has said it has not made any decision to pursue a no-fly zone, which would involve targeted airstrikes in order to remove air defenses. Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, said that while a no-fly zone near the Jordanian border might be a “feasible eventuality” given the strong presence of moderate rebel groups in the area, sending anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels “still appears unlikely.”
Mokdad said it is essential that the international community “move fast” if it wants to have an impact on the trajectory of the 25-month-old conflict, which according to a new United Nations report so far has resulted in nearly 93,000 confirmed deaths.
The fall of the opposition-held town of Qusair earlier this month to government troops backed by militants from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah has added urgency to rebel pleas for arms.
“Hezbollah changed the balance,” Mokdad said. “The killing we saw in Qusair, it will happen everywhere.”
Emboldened by their gains, the Syrian army appears to be pushing on to try to secure the central cities of Hama and Homs, as well as Aleppo, to the north, where a build-up of troops has been reported.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes on Friday in the rebel-held eastern neighborhood of Sakhour were the most violent in the Aleppo in months.
Israeli officials have made no official comment on the White House announcement to supply weapons to the rebels. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stressed that Israel is not taking sides in the Syrian conflict. But he warned Assad last week that Israel would respond to any aggression along the tense border with Syria in the Golan Heights.
“I fear it is too little, too late,” said Brig. Gen. Mike Herzog, a reserve officer and former chief of staff to Israel’s defense minister, now an analyst of military affairs.
Israel is concerned that with the passing of time, the rebel fighters will draw more radical Islamists who could turn their weapons against Israel. “There are still some moderate groups in the Free Syria Army,” Herzog said. “But less every day.”
Herzog said that if the United States gave anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels – instead of just light arms –Â€Â” “then a no fly zone would not be needed.” The rebel fighters could shoot down helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, he said.
“Supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels could get pretty messy and pretty weird,” said Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel. “There are hardly any secular democratic fighters on the ground anymore,” Spyer said.
As Russia says it will push forward to fulfill arms contracts with the Syrian government, efforts to send weapons to both sides have overshadowed diplomacy ahead of a planned United States and Russian-backed peace summit, supposedly scheduled to take place in Geneva next month.
The opposition had demanded arms ahead of the summit, saying the government would not enter meaningful negotiations from a position of strength.
“President Obama’s leadership, as well as direct U.S. support of all kinds, is necessary in order to create the conditions on the ground required to enable the implementation of a negotiated settlement,” Najib Ghadbian, the opposition coalition’s special representative to the United States, said in a statement.
In Russia, officials uniformly cast doubt on the American assertion about the use of chemical weapons.
The United States has not produced solid proof, Alexander Lukashevich, the spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry, said at a briefing Friday.
The reports about the American decision to send arms to the Syrian opposition “can not fail to be perceived with serious concerns,” he said. “They prompt, among other things, the idea that the U.S. effort to ensure the due representation of the opposition at the prepared international conference will not gain any traction.”
Lukashevich said that Russia remains committed to trying to hold the conference, nonetheless.
An aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin said Putin will discuss Syria with Obama at the upcoming G8 meeting.
“I would not like to draw parallels and to believe this data (on chemical weapons) may look like the situation when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell waved a test-tube at the well-known Security Council session,” Yury Ushakov said at a press briefing ahead of the summit, in remarks relayed by Russian news agencies. He was referring to an appearance by Powell at the United Nations in early 2003, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Will Englund in Moscow, Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut and William Booth in Jerusalem contributed to this story.