Middle East

Rebels seek weapons, no-fly zone from Friends of Syria

A picture taken from a village in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke billowing following alleged shelling by Syrian government forces in the southern Syrian village of Jubata al-Khashab. (AFP PHOTO/JALAA MAREY)

DAMASCUS: Syrian rebels urged friendly world powers Thursday to provide them with heavier weapons and to impose a no-fly zone over parts of the country they control to avert a humanitarian disaster.

On the ground, troops and rebels battled in several districts and suburbs of Damascus, and the army shelled insurgent positions using heavy artillery and mortars, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Western and Arab powers from the so-called Friends of Syria group will meet in Doha on Saturday to discuss aid for the rebels, including military help, a French diplomat said Wednesday.

Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Meqdad said Thursday “the regime could use Scud missiles with unconventional warheads to shell liberated areas. So we need a safe haven.”

“It is necessary to establish secure areas and impose no-fly zones in the south or north,” he told AFP in Dubai.

Calling for anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, he said that “if they do not provide us with arms to protect civilian areas, a humanitarian disaster will occur because regime troops are committing massacres in the areas they are recapturing.”

Western powers have so far refused to arm opposition rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops out of fear they could fall into the hands of radical Islamists.

But Meqdad said “we are committed to ensuring that these weapons do not fall into the hands of unorganised or extremist groups.”

Meqdad said that the regime had been amassing troops in preparation for an offensive on rebel-held areas on the outskirts of Damascus and second city Aleppo.

The expected campaign comes after Assad forces regained control of the strategic town of Qusair, on the border with Lebanon, with Hezbollah help.

France said Thursday it needed more talks with the rebels before it could supply them with heavy weapons.

Paris has not yet chosen to arm them since pushing, along with Britain, to have an EU arms embargo lifted. It says it will not make a decision before Aug. 1.

“As far as weapons go, there is no question of delivering weapons in conditions that we aren’t sure about and that means we won’t deliver weapons so that they are turned against us,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters during a visit to the annual Paris Airshow.

“It’s one of the reasons why we need more consultations with [FSA chief of staff Gen. Salim] Idriss.”

He also dismissed suggestions that after recent gains Assad was headed for victory. “It isn’t possible that just like that Assad achieves a complete victory. Anyway he remains a dictator,” Fabius said.

However in an interview with AP, Syria’s deputy foreign minister said that he had “every confidence” that the army can recover all of the country’s territory now in rebel hands, saying victory is within reach despite “huge quantities” of weapons pouring into the country.

Asked whether the government could get back all the territory it had lost to the rebels, Meqdad replied: “Absolutely, I have every confidence to say that the government is increasingly getting more support from the entire Syrian people.”

In Moscow, meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the West was dragging its feet on agreeing to a date for a peace conference because “they are not at all sure that they will be able to sell the opposition.” The opposition has long insisted that Assad’s departure is a precondition for any settlement.

Also Thursday, Lavrov said it would honor its controversial contract to deliver S-300 air defense missile systems to Syria.

“As yet, the contracts are not finished, they have not been delivered in full,” he added.

Russia last month acknowledged it had agreed to sell Syria advanced S-300 air-defense missile systems, which are considered to be the cutting edge in aircraft interception technology.

The army was seeking to retake rebel positions in suburbs south of the capital Thursday, and to cut off supply lines to others inside the capital, the Britain-based Observatory said.

In the north of the country, Islamist rebel fighters cut access to a Kurdish area and clashed with Kurdish nationalist PKK rebels there, accusing them of backing Assad.

Fighting erupted overnight on the edge of Ifrin, a rugged, olive-growing area on the Turkish border, the sources said. Four people were killed, bringing to at least 30 the death toll from battles and assassinations in the last few days.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 21, 2013, on page 1.




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