Arabs mull arming Syrian opposition

At least 6 killed in Homs; Arab League asks Arabs provide "all kinds of political and material support."

Free Syria Army member with an assault rifle 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Amateur video)
Free Syria Army member with an assault rifle 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amateur video)
AMMAN/BEIRUT - Syrian government forces attacked opponents of President Bashar Assad in cities and towns across the country on Tuesday and Arab officials confirmed that regional governments would be ready to arm the resistance if the bloodshed did not cease.
The western city of Homs, heart of the uprising against Assad's 11-year-rule, suffered a bombardment of pro-opposition neighborhoods for the 11th day running. At least six people were reported killed.
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.
This would allow arms transfers, they confirmed to Reuters.
"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.
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 Libya-style conflict or sectarian civil war.
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"I suspect we will see a further militarization of this conflict, with potentially quite widespread and dangerous consequences," said analyst Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.
Smuggled guns are already filtering into Syria but it is not clear if Arab or other governments are behind the deliveries. Weapons and Sunni Muslim insurgents are also seeping from Iraq into Syria, Iraqi officials and arms dealers said.
Assad, whose Alawite-minority family has ruled the mainly Sunni Muslim country for 42 years, is trying to stamp out pro-democracy demonstrations and stop insurgent raids across Syria country with what UN officials describe as indiscriminate attacks and shoot-to-kill orders.
He dismisses his opponents as terrorists backed by enemy nations in a regional power-play and says he will introduce reforms on his own terms.
While the uprising initially involved rallies by civilians, armed insurrection by the Free Syrian Army, made up largely of army defectors, is increasingly coming into play.
Diplomatic efforts continue
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, seen by Reuters, is similar to a Security Council draft vetoed by Russia and China on February 4 that 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.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington that the peacekeeper proposal would be tough to get through, given Russian and Chinese support for Damascus.
"There are a lot of challenges to be discussed ... and certainly the peacekeeping request is one that will take agreement and consensus," Clinton said.
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.