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Kerry: Arming rebels on the table if Assad shuns peace talks

Syrian rebels fire locally made shells made from gas cylinders against the Syrian forces, in Idlib province, northern Syria. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN)

AMMAN: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Wednesday that arming rebels was a real option if President Bashar Assad did not engage in peace talks, but the logistics of doing so remained elusive.

Kerry is in Amman for the “Friends of Syria” meeting seeking support from European and Arab states for a peace initiative that he launched jointly with Russia for a conference in Geneva in the coming weeks.

Speaking alongside his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh, Kerry made an emotional appeal for both sides of the conflict to engage in the proposed “Geneva 2” conference as the last option for peace.

“Let’s assume there is no Geneva 2. What will happen? What will happen is an absolute guarantee that the violence will continue,” he said.

The scramble for a diplomatic solution comes amid mounting concerns that the violence could engulf the region, with increasing reports of chemical weapons use, explicit involvement of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian fighters alongside Assad’s forces and the rise of Al-Qaeda-linked fighters among Assad’s foes.

“In the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate in Geneva ... in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support and growing support to the opposition in order to permit them to continue to be able to fight for the freedom of their country.”

Doubts over the success of the conference are being fueled by sharp disagreements over the role Assad could have in any transitional government and lack of cohesion among opposition groups. The opposition Syrian National Coalition, which refused to attend the meeting in Jordan, insists Assad’s departure must be the object of any talks. Assad says he will not step down, while his backer Russia says there must be no preconditions for talks.

Kerry’s carefully worded comments on the issue have led some in the opposition to suspect the U.S. is backing away from demands that Assad leave. “There must be a transitional government with full executive authority with mutual consent. And it is very, very clear as a starting point that mutual consent will never be given by any member of the broad opposition of Syria for Assad to continue to run that government,” he said.

Later responding to questions, he added: “I’d ask anybody of common sense: Can a person who has allegedly used gas against his own people; can a person who has killed more than 70,000, upward of 100,000 people; can a person who has used artillery shells and missiles and Scuds and tanks against women and children and university students ... possibly be judged by any reasonable person to have the credibility and legitimacy to lead that country in the future?”

Kerry’s comments came a day after a Senate panel voted to provide weapons to the rebels, the first time American lawmakers have endorsed the aggressive U.S. military step of arming the opposition.

But U.S. and other Western officials have admitted the logistics for arming the rebels are highly problematic.

The U.S. has said while it will not supply lethal aid to the rebels, it will not prevent other countries from doing so. But there increasing fears form the U.S. and its Arab allies, including Jordan, that arms, supplied through mostly private networks and individuals in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait could reach hostile Islamist groups.

“Our position was always arming who? And do we have addresses and do we have CVs?” Judeh said. Efforts to vet and unite secular-minded rebel groups appear to have made little headway.

Senior Syrian military commanders have told The Daily Star that there is no weapons support to the rebels coming from the Jordanian border while others have confirmed weapons through the northern territories are also drying up.

General Selim Idriss, head of the Supreme Military Council, tasked with unifying rebel brigades, told The Daily Star earlier this week that while progress was being made to unify the various militias and counter hard-line Islamist groups, “most weapons come from internally or from Iraq.”

U.S. officials attending the Amman meeting admitted the logistics of arming rebels posed enormous problems, also suggesting it was near impossible to manage weapons flow from private donors, rather than state actors.

And efforts were being made to punish those cooperating with designated terrorist groups, such as the Nusra Front, another official said. “But that takes time.”

With Assad increasingly franchising to other non-state actors and making undeniable gains on the ground, that may be time the U.S. doesn’t have.

Moreover, the threat may not achieve the desired result of pushing Assad to talks, according to Daniel Levy, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa Program. “Direct military intervention has wisely been rejected, but arming the opposition as part of a balancing, leveraging and influencing effort in the lead up to Geneva II is under consideration by the trans-Atlantic partners,” Levy said. “While an understandable option, it is an ill-advised one.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 23, 2013, on page 1.

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