BEIRUT: A senior Free Syrian Army commander said the West was more concerned with fighting Islamist extremists in Syria than toppling President Bashar Assad and warned procrastination on arming secular forces would only boost radical elements.
The warnings came as British diplomatic sources revealed the United Kingdom has essentially abandoned plans to arm the Syrian rebels, believing Assad might survive in office for years.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., debate over whether to intervene in Syria to arm the rebels raged.
Deputy Commander of the FSA, Malik al-Kurdi, told The Daily Star the West had sent “clear messages” that arms would only be forthcoming if the FSA agreed to fight Islamist extremists.
“The message has been clear that only if the FSA fights the radical groups then they will get weapons. But that’s impossible because it will only create more conflict within the armed groups,” Kurdi said in a telephone interview from Istanbul.
“That message has been conveyed directly through different meetings which are always focused on what to do about the radical groups. Meanwhile, on the ground the radicals keep getting the weapons.”
Concerns have mounted in recent weeks that radical Islamist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Iraq are gaining ground, imposing an extreme interpretation of Islam in Syria, and further fracturing the Syrian opposition after a series of violent confrontations with more moderate rebels affiliated with the FSA.
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria last week killed a Free Syrian Army commander, Fadi al-Qish in Dana in Idlib. That was followed by the slaying of an FSA leader and member of the Supreme Military Council, Kamal Hamami, in Latakia province. The conflict between supposed allies prompted FSA leaders to say the killings “amounted to a declaration of war.”The fracturing of the forces opposed to Assad has added both a sense of urgency to calls to arm more “secular” forces, but also misgivings about where those arms could land.
Meanwhile, Assad’s forces, backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and with superior arms supplied by Russia and Iran, continue to make advances on the ground against rebels in Homs, Damascus suburbs and elsewhere.
Amid widespread fighting and shelling across the country, a government aircraft shelled a school in Homs’ Dablan neighborhood housing hundreds of internally displaced people, killing at least seven, an emergency worker told The Daily Star. The strike was reportedly an accident, with government forces intending to hit a nearby besieged rebel-held neighborhood.
British sources familiar with government thinking told Reuters that Britain now believed Assad would stay and arming the rebels was now out of the question.
“Britain is clearly not going to arm the rebels in any way, shape or form,” one source told the agency.
The reasons for the shift in thinking, the report said, were that British public opinion was largely opposed, and there were fears that any weapons Britain supplied could fall into the hands of Islamist militants.
In the gloomiest assessment of the rebels’ prospects yet, the sources also told Reuters that a peace conference to try to end the conflict might not happen until next year, if at all.
It was British Prime Minister David Cameron who led the charge earlier this year for the European Union to drop an arms embargo on Syria, which London and Paris had argued was one-sidedly penalizing the anti-Assad opposition.
“[Britain] will train them, give them tactical advice and intelligence, teach them command and control. But public opinion, like it or not, is against intervention,” the source said.
While Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia might be willing to supply arms to the rebels, and France might quietly channel some weapons, the first source said they were unlikely to provide “game-changing” weapons.
In the U.S., meanwhile, the top military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, told a Senate panel that the Obama administration is deliberating whether to use military power in Syria.
Dempsey said he had provided President Barack Obama with options for the use of force, but declined to detail the choices, saying “it would be inappropriate for me to try to influence the decision with me rendering an opinion in public about what kind of force we should use.”
The remarks by the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman came after Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican, asked him which approach in Syria would carry a greater risk: continued limited action on the part of Washington or more significant actions such as the establishment of a no-fly zone and arming the rebel forces.
“Senator, I am in favor of building a moderate opposition and supporting it,” Dempsey said. “The question whether to support it with direct kinetic strikes ... is a decision for our elected officials, not for the senior military leader of the nation.”
The FSA’s Kurdi said such continued deliberations would only empower Islamists: “They are worried about radical groups, where in reality they are helping to create these groups. ... From the beginning we have reiterated that the weapons are not going to the moderate forces but to the radical groups.
“There is no such thing as the Islamic State in Syria yet, but these sort of groups are spreading to several areas. It will grow and eventually be a threat to the West.”
He acknowledged that confrontations between rebel groups were increasing.
“We are avoiding armed confrontation because it will weaken us, and we are not in a position to enter into armed confrontation [with radical groups now],” he said. “We realize that the international community wants to eliminate the jihadists but that is not in our interests.”
Meetings were underway late Thursday between members of the Syrian National Coalition, including the newly elected leader Ahmad Jarba and Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz to discuss greater military and financial assistance to the rebels, but there was no immediate word on the outcome.
Meanwhile, Syria’s top rebel commander, Salim Idriss, is likely to visit the United States next week where he is expected to make a plea for speedy U.S. arms shipments.