Middle East

U.S. mulls backing arm transfers to Syrian rebels

A mourner waves the pre-Baath Syrian flag during the funeral procession of a victim killed in violence in Deraa.

WASHINGTON/DAMASCUS: As one diplomatic effort after another fails to end more than a year of brutal violence in Syria, the Obama administration is preparing a plan that would essentially give U.S. nods of approval to arms transfers from Arab nations to some Syrian opposition fighters.

The effort, U.S. officials told the Associated Press, would vet members of the Free Syrian Army and other groups to determine whether they are suitable recipients of munitions to fight President Bashar Assad’s government and to ensure that weapons don’t wind up in the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists or other extremist groups that could target Israel.

The plan, which has not yet been finalized, reflects U.S. frustration that none of the previous efforts – including diplomatic rhetoric from the United Nations and the multinational Friends of Syria group, and special envoy Kofi Annan’s plan for a cease-fire – has even begun to nudge Assad from power. The vetting would be the first tiny step the U.S. has made toward ensuring that the Syrian opposition uses the weapons to fight Assad and not to turn it into a full sectarian conflict.

While some intelligence analysts worry that there may be no suitable recipients of lethal aid in the Syria conflict, the vetting plan has arisen as the least objectionable idea in a complicated situation.

American officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, stressed that the U.S., which is already providing non-lethal aid to Syria’s political opposition, is not supplying military assistance to Assad’s foes.

The U.S. position remains that bringing more weapons into Syria will only heighten instability.

Privately, however, officials say that as conditions continue to deteriorate, it would be irresponsible not to weigh in with Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and others such as Turkey that have indicated interest in arming the rebels.

By some accounts, those nations have already begun to ship weapons with tacit U.S. agreement. In Turkey, private businessmen have begun funneling weapons into Syria.

Separately, the outgoing leader of the opposition Syrian National Council said Thursday the group was deeply divided and had so far failed the Syrian people. While a watchdog reported the day’s death toll had reached 28, a U.N. panel said government forces were to blame for most abuses in the violence that has raged on daily despite a U.N.-backed cease-fire supposed to take effect April 12.

Meanwhile, Assad insisted his government was capable of finding a way out of the crisis gripping his country, as the new parliament held its first session Thursday. Baath party member Jihad Lahham was elected speaker following a May 7 election boycotted by the opposition and dismissed by the West as a farce.

“Syria has been able to overcome the pressures and threats it has faced for years and is able to get out of this crisis thanks to the strength of its people and commitment to unity and independence,” state media quoted the Syrian leader as telling Iranian Communications and Information Technology Minister Reza Taqipour.

Speaking to AFP after the main opposition Syrian National Council accepted his resignation as leader, Burhan Ghalioun said the chasm in its ranks between Islamist and secularists had let down the Syrian people and played into Assad’s hands.

“We were not up to the sacrifices of the Syrian people. We did not answer the needs of the revolution enough or quickly enough,” Ghalioun told AFP.

“I submitted my resignation precisely to say that this path of division between Islamist and secular doesn’t work. I think the Syrian regime has won in that respect because since the beginning it has tried to play on this division,” said the Paris-based academic.

Ghalioun said the exiled opposition group’s lethargy was due to the consensual way it was run. “The current formula is a coalition formula of a few parties and political groups that monopolize decisions and don’t give any chance to members to really take part in decisions,” he said. “We were slow, the revolution goes at 100 kilometers per hour and we move at 100 meters per hour perhaps because we were blocked by this consensus rule,” Ghalioun said.

His comments came as a Britain-based watchdog reported that government forces had pounded the rebel stronghold of Rastan, in central Syria, for an 11th straight day, killing at least three civilians.

Violence elsewhere killed 25 people, including four summarily executed in Basamis, in Idlib province in the northwest, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, condemning it as a “contravention of international treaties.”

Government forces have been trying to overrun Rastan since May 14. Rebel fighters from the battered central city of Homs regrouped in the town, which straddles the main highway linking Damascus to the north.

More than 12,600 people have been killed in Syria since the revolt against Assad’s rule broke out in March last year, including nearly 1,500 since the U.N.-backed truce took effect, according to Observatory figures.

In Geneva, the U.N.-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Syria said the army and security forces had been behind the majority of serious abuses committed since March this year as they hunted down defectors and opponents.

“Most of the serious human rights violations documented by the Commission in this update were committed by the Syrian army and security services as part of military or search operations conducted in locations known for hosting defectors and/or armed persons, or perceived as supportive of anti-government armed groups,” said the panel.

The report comes hot on the heels of accusations by human-rights group Amnesty International that “the pattern and scale of state abuses may have constituted crimes against humanity.”

The London-based rights watchdog denounced the U.N. Security Council for failing to refer Assad to the International Criminal Court as it had done with former Libyan leader Moaamar Gadhafi.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 25, 2012, on page 1.




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