Syrian rebels to tell West: Arm us, or Assad gains

Assad opposition to use planned meeting with officials to accelerate military aid from West.

By REUTERS
June 13, 2013 20:21
4 minute read.
Free Syrian Army fighter  in Aleppo's Salaheddine neighbourhood, April 28, 2013

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 Iranian-backed forces.

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.

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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 West.

"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 jihadi backlash.

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 Aleppo.

"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.

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"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 reached.

HIGH STAKES

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.

A diplomat from one country who will attend Saturday's planned talks said his government had worked with Idris for six months and regarded him highly.

"But the problem is his ability to impose his leadership. He needs money, ammunition and weapons to ensure he is credible," the diplomat said.

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 coherent planning.

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 in policy.

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,"


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