Free Syrian Army fighter 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Aref Hretani)
BEIRUT - Syrian rebels will use a planned meeting with
Western officials to drive home a warning that continued reluctance to arm them
will hand an irreversible military advantage to Syrian President Bashar Assad's
Deeply frustrated by the foot-dragging over
military aid, several rebel commanders contrasted what they said was Western
preference for talks over action with the unqualified support Assad enjoyed from
his allies in Tehran and Moscow.
Assad's forces, helped by guerrilla
fighters from the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, recaptured the strategic town of Qusair
last week and may be preparing an offensive to wrest back Syria's biggest city
Aleppo, in the north.
A Western diplomat said the meeting in Turkey had
been planned for Saturday and had been brought forward by one day to Friday. But
a senior Syrian rebel officer based in Damascus said it was part of a series of
talks since the battle of Qusair, which he described as a "wake-up call" to the
"They know for sure that unless something happens within days, the
West will find itself dealing with a completely new scenario," he said, painting
a picture of Shi'ite Iranian dominance in Syria and an extreme Sunni Muslim
Iranian commanders are believed to have set out the
strategy for the recent Syrian army counter-offensive, while Russia has ignored
Western calls to halt arms sales to the government.
The setbacks for
Assad's foes, who just six months ago were battling his forces at the gates of
Damascus, have alarmed French, U.S., British and Turkish officials who are due
to meet rebel leaders to discuss new aid and the military buildup around
"All we need is weapons. Why does it have to take so long to send
proper anti-aircraft weapons or arms to help us finish the battle?" said another
senior commander who is due to attend the talks.
"The Party of Satan
(Hezbollah) and the Russians are sending Assad fighters, warplanes and more
weapons...while our allies who are supposed to be helping us only ask for
meetings," he said, using the rebels' derogatory label for the Lebanese militant
group, whose name in Arabic means Party of God.
He said that Western
officials continued to demand assurances that any weapons would not fall into
the hands of radical Islamists, whose influence and military capabilities
overshadow those of the perceived moderates.
"All they ask about is the
Islamists and what they describe as weapons 'going to the right hands'," the
rebel said. "They ask us to take a clear stance on the Islamists." He also
bemoaned the fact that it would be attended by ambassadors who were in no
position to take on-the-spot decisions about military aid, saying the threat on
the ground required immediate action.
The Damascus-based rebel said talks
over the last week had covered a framework for ensuring that weapons did not end
up with radical Islamist groups, but no final agreement had so far been
The rebels say that they are in no position to
dictate terms to Islamist brigades who already outgun them and upon whom they
have depended for most gains of the last two years.
"How can we tell the
Islamists thank you and goodbye when they are the ones with weapons and making
the success on the ground? They are helping us big time we can not deny that and
we will be ungrateful to do so," the rebel fighter said.
Selim Idris, a
former brigadier-general, will lead the rebel delegation in the talks.
diplomat from one country who will attend Saturday's planned talks said his
government had worked with Idris for six months and regarded him
"But the problem is his ability to impose his leadership. He
needs money, ammunition and weapons to ensure he is credible," the diplomat
Idris heads a military command which includes many liberal and
Islamist brigades, but neither he nor the leadership exerts genuine authority on
the ground and its military successes depend more on individual commanders than
Idris himself is dismissively referred to as "the
teacher" by some rebels who say he has few leadership attributes and criticise
his absence from the battlefield.
Another Syrian army defector, who is
based outside Syria, accused the West of "playing games" with the rebels on the
question of arms and said he doubted the Turkey meeting would lead to any change
But the senior Damascus-based rebel fighter said there was no
alternative to arming Assad's foes if the West wanted to prevent Tehran
delivering a conclusive triumph for Assad.
"They do not have any choice
but to make this successful otherwise Iran would have had a clean victory,"