Friday, March 7, 2014
By LOVEDAY MORRIS / Special to The Washington Post
BEIRUT – 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.
A citizen journalism image that has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows members of the Free Syria Army preparing their weapons in the neighborhood of al-Amerieh in Aleppo, Syria, in April. Rebels say they need heavy weapons to fight government troops and to gain leverage at any bargaining table.
2013 Associated Press File Photo / Aleppo Media Center AMC
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.
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