June 14, 2013

Syrian rebels say they need heavy weaponry from U.S.

By LOVEDAY MORRIS / Special to The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

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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

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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 –€” "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.

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