Arabs may mull arming Syrian opposition

Clinton hints intervention possible only with Assad’s assent; activist: Regime using chemical weapons.

February 15, 2012 03:01
Free Syria Army member with an assault rifle

Free Syria Army member with an assault rifle 390 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Amateur video)

Syrian forces attacked anti-government rebels and civilians in cities and towns across the country Tuesday, as Arab officials confirmed regional governments would be ready to arm the resistance if the bloodshed did not stop.

The western city of Homs, the heart of the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s 11-year-rule, suffered a bombardment of pro-opposition neighborhoods for the 11th day running. Twenty people were reported killed nationwide Tuesday.

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Residents also fled from Rankous, a rural town near the capital Damascus, as it came under government artillery fire.

With Assad seemingly oblivious to international condemnation of his campaign to crush the revolt, Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia pushed for a new resolution at the United Nations supporting a peace plan forged at a meeting in Cairo on Sunday.

But Arab League diplomats said that arming the opposition forces was now officially an option.

A resolution passed at the meeting urged Arabs to “provide all kinds of political and material support” to the opposition, which would also allow arms transfers.

“We will back the opposition financially and diplomatically in the beginning but if the killing by the regime continues, civilians must be helped to protect themselves. The resolution gives Arab states all options to protect the Syrian people,” an Arab ambassador said.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the peacekeeper proposal would be tough to get through, given Russian and Chinese support for Damascus. Clinton seemed to suggest that foreign troops could only be deployed to Syria with Assad’s permission.

“There are a lot of challenges to be discussed... and certainly the peacekeeping request is one that will take agreement and consensus,” she said at a press conference with her Turkish counterpart. “So we don’t know that it is going to be possible to persuade Syria. They’ve already, as of today, rejected that.”

Clinton also appeared to hint that Assad might somehow, of his own accord, adopt the Arab League plan and step down.

“No one wants to see a civil war in Syria. So we have to encourage the Assad regime, and those who support it, to understand that there’s either a path toward peacemaking and democratic transition – which is what we are promoting – or there’s a path that leads toward chaos and violence, which we deplore,” she said.

The threat of military support was meant to add pressure on the Syrian leader and his Russian and Chinese allies but it also risks leading to a Libyastyle conflict or sectarian civil war.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Tuesday it was urgent to prevent war and chaos in Syria and vowed to work through the UN to seek an end to civil strife in the country.

“On the issue of Syria, what is most urgent and pressing now is to prevent war and chaos so that the Syrian people will be free from even greater suffering,” Wen said.

Smuggled guns are already filtering into Syria but it is not clear if Arab or other governments are behind the deliveries.

Weapons and Sunni insurgents are also seeping from Iraq into Syria, Iraqi officials and arms dealers said.

“We think fighters linked to al-Qaida and some Sunni armed groups are sending fighters to Syria to participate in the fighting there as a kind of moral support,” said one senior Baghdad security official.

Conflict flared anew on Tuesday in Rankous, near the capital Damascus. One activist said many residents had fled the town from government shelling.

One activist said Assad’s regime has used chemical warfare in order to ease its entrance into Homs. Awad Al-Razak – an officer who defected from the Syrian army, where he worked in the chemical warfare department – told Al-Arabiya the government had used nerve gas under the supervision of Russian and Iranian scientists, and intends to do so again in other parts of the country. The charges could not be immediately confirmed.

In Homs, a strategic city on the highway between Damascus and commercial hub Aleppo, the pro-opposition neighborhood of Baba Amro was struck at dawn by the heaviest shelling in five days, the Syria Observatory for Human Rights said.

Twenty people were killed nationwide, it said, adding to an estimated toll of more than 400 since the assault began on February 3.

“They are hitting the same spots several consecutive times, making venturing out there impossible. The shelling was heavy in the morning and now it is one rocket every 15 minutes or so,” one activist said by satellite phone.

“Residents are trapped. We have a man who sustained severe burns and is dying and he needs a hospital,” he said, adding that the man was in a truck picking up wounded people in Baba Amro overnight when it was hit by rocket fire.

A doctor at a makeshift hospital in Baba Amro, appeared in a video with a wounded youth he said was shot by a sniper in his side.

“The bullet ended up in the stomach. This is a critical condition that needs transportation to a proper hospital,” he said. “We appeal to anyone with conscience to intervene to stop the massacres of Bashar Assad and his cohorts.”

Opposition activist Mohammad al-Homsi said the humanitarian situation was getting worse, with food and fuel short and prices tripling. Army roadblocks had been set up around opposition districts, Homsi said from the city.

Shelling was also reported in the town of Rastan.

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At the United Nations, diplomats said a draft General Assembly resolution, supporting the Arab League plan and calling for the appointment of a joint UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, could be put to a vote on Wednesday or Thursday.

The resolution is similar to a Security Council draft vetoed by Russia and China on February 4, which condemned the Assad government and called on him to step aside.

There are no vetoes in General Assembly votes and its decisions are not legally binding.

An Arab League proposal for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping mission be sent to Syria elicited a guarded response from Western powers, who are wary of becoming bogged down militarily in Syria. It was rejected out of hand by the Assad government.

Russia, Assad’s main ally and arms supplier, also showed little enthusiasm, saying it could not support a peacekeeping mission unless both sides stopped the violence first.

The Syria conflict, the most prolonged of the revolts in the Arab world, which saw the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya toppled last year, is shaping up to be a geopolitical struggle reminiscent of the Cold War.

Russia wants to retain its foothold in the region and counter US influence. Assad is also allied to Iran, which is at odds with the United States, Europe and Israel.

The Arab drive against Assad is led by Sunni-ruled Gulf states, who also see Shi’ite Iran and its shadowy nuclear program as a threat.

Analysts say the conflict could spread across the Middle East’s ethnic, religious and political fault lines if it is not resolved.

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