June 14, 2013

U.S. arming of Syrian rebels gets cool response

International reaction ranges from disbelief of U.S. intelligence reports to calls for negotiation.

By DEB RIECHMANN and LOLITA C. BALDOR The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Injured Hezbollah fighters listen to a speech by Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah on a screen via a video link during a rally to mark "wounded resistant's day," in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, on Friday. Nasrallah said his group will continue to fight in Syria "wherever needed."

The Associated Press

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HEZBOLLAH LEADER VOWS TO KEEP FIGHTING IN SYRIA

BEIRUT - Hezbollah's leader vowed Friday that his militants would keep fighting in Syria "wherever needed" after the United States agreed to arm the rebels in the civil war, setting up a proxy fight between Iran and the West that threatens to engulf more of the Middle East.

The 2-year-old conflict, which the U.N. estimates has killed more than 90,000 people and displaced millions, is increasingly being fought along sectarian lines, pitting Sunni against Shiite Muslims, and is threatening the stability of Syria's neighbors.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, chief of the Shiite Hezbollah group in Lebanon, appeared unwavering in his support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He signaled for the first time the Iranian-backed militant group will stay involved in the civil war after helping Assad's army recapture the key town of Qusair in central Homs province from rebels.

"We will be where we should be. We will continue to bear the responsibility we took upon ourselves," Nasrallah said in a speech via satellite to supporters in south Beirut. "There is no need to elaborate. ... We leave the details to the requirements of the battlefield."

Nasrallah appeared angry and defiant, saying the group has made a "calculated" decision to defend the Assad regime.

Hezbollah has come under harsh criticism at home and abroad for sending its fighters to Qusair, and Nasrallah's gamble in Syria primarily stems from his group's vested interest in the regime's survival. The Syrian government has been one of Hezbollah's strongest backers for decades, and the militant group fears that if Assad's regime falls, it will be replaced by a U.S.-backed government that is hostile to Hezbollah.

Nasrallah said his group was the last to join the fray in Syria, after hundreds and perhaps thousands of Sunni fighters -- many of them from Lebanon -- headed to Syria in support of the rebels.

-- The Associated Press

"I wouldn't like to draw parallels with the famous dossier of Secretary of State Colin Powell, but the facts, the information presented by the U.S. didn't look convincing," he said. The comment indeed drew a parallel with Powell's speech to the U.N. asserting pre-war Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a claim that proved false.

Ushakov also suggested that sending weapons to the opposition would diminish Moscow's interest in negotiations in Geneva.

"If the Americans make and fulfill a decision to provide a greater assistance to the rebels, to the opposition, it's not going to make the preparations for an international conference on Syria any easier," he said.

Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, acknowledged the differences that remain between United States and Russia on the Syrian crisis. Despite their disagreement over chemical weapon use, the United States will continue to talk to the Russians about ways to achieve a political settlement in Syria, considered the best option.

"We have no illusions that that's going to be easy," Rhodes said, adding that Obama and Putin would meet next week.

Getting Western allies to increase support for the rebels won't necessarily be easy, either.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said there is credible evidence of "multiple attacks" using chemical weapons by Assad's fighters, but indicated that al-Qaida-linked elements in the opposition movement had also tried to acquire chemical weapons for probable use in Syria. The Obama administration says it has no evidence the opposition has used chemical weapons.

French President Francois Hollande told reporters Friday that the use of chemical weapons by Assad "confirms that we must exercise pressure on the regime." But Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot would not say whether the U.S. claim of chemical weapons adds momentum to arming rebels.

 

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