BEIRUT/WASHINGTON: Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba said Wednesday that rebels would soon receive advanced weapons because they have been waging a two-front war against regime troops and militant extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
Jarba said that his National Coalition had achieved a “political victory” during last month’s Geneva II peace talks, arguing that leading states were now contemplating changes to their approach to the war.
“It is now time for us to receive advanced weapons,” Jarba said, also citing the regime’s “barrel bomb” campaign centered on the city of Aleppo, which continued unabated during the convening of the peace talks in Switzerland.
He declined to discuss the details of the future arms shipments, and whether they would include shoulder-fired MANPADS, or anti-aircraft weapons.
But he said the advanced weapons on the way would help the armed opposition “get rid of these aircraft” that have been bombarding civilian areas of Aleppo and other cities, killing hundreds in the last six weeks.
Jarba made the comments during an interview with Future Television conducted in Cairo, one day after he made made his first visit to Moscow, for talks with senior Russian officials.
Jarba said that both Russia and China were coming around to the notion of altering their full support for the government of President Bashar Assad, a change he said was evident during the course of the Geneva negotiations.
Jarba argued that while the regime might have sought to turn the Geneva meetings into discussions about “fighting terror,” the fact that mainstream rebels were heavily involved in fighting ISIS militants had become clear to countries concerned with the conflict.
“After we have been fighting Assad and ISIS, the West has changed its mind,” Jarba said, referring to the monthlong campaign by rebel groups against ISIS militants.
Media reports in recent days have indicated that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been advocating a change of course in Syria, which could possibly see a stepping up of deliveries of weaponry to the rebels.
In Washington, Kerry admitted that Assad was making gains on the ground, but he denied U.S. policy in Syria was failing.
“It’s fair to say that Assad has improved his position a little bit, yes. But he’s still not winning. This is a stalemate,” Kerry told CNN television in an interview.
But asked whether he believed that America’s policy in the war-torn country, which has seen a mounting death toll in its three-year conflict, had failed, he replied “No.”
“The policy in Syria is just very challenging and very difficult.”
Earlier this week, the State Department denied reports Kerry told U.S. lawmakers in a private meeting that he believed it was time to change strategy in Syria, where some 136,000 people have died and millions have fled their homes.
“I don’t want to make any excuse whatsoever. We want this to move faster. We want it to do better,” Kerry told CNN.
“But the point I’m making is that diplomacy is tough, slogging, slow work and hard work.”
January marked the deadliest month so far in the conflict with some 6,000 dead, and Kerry said Washington was “always in the process of re-evaluating whether there’s more we can do, should do.”
U.S. President Barack Obama has so far refused to provide heavy weaponry to the moderate rebels battling to topple Assad, amid fears it could fall into the hands of militant groups flooding into the country.
Kerry pledged the administration would work with Congress as well as internally to try to figure out how to push the Russians to use their influence on Assad to help improve conditions on the ground.
A State Department official, meanwhile, told American lawmakers that the Iraqi government needed to do more to prevent Iran from flying weapons and fighters through its airspace en route to Syria.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been accused by Washington of allowing Iran to fly planes through Iraqi airspace and send support to Assad’s regime.
“The issue of overflights is something where the Iraqis have not done enough,” the State Department’s Brett McGurk said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
“We continue to press this issue. Inspections go up, inspections go down. It’s very frustrating,” he added.
His comments come as the Obama administration is seeking to expedite delivery of a range of U.S. weaponry to Maliki’s government as it fights a resurgent militant threat.
In Syria, ISIS signed a truce with a leading Islamist rebel brigade that had been involved in the campaign against it. The deal signed Tuesday between ISIS and Suqour al-Sham was posted online Wednesday and also reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights NGO.
It calls for “an immediate halt to fighting between the sides, and no assault by either side on the other in any way.”
It also urges that any disagreements between the groups be referred to an Islamic court.
Jihadist groups were initially welcomed to the Syrian conflict by some in the opposition, but ISIS sparked a fierce backlash from both moderate and Islamist brigades because of alleged abuses against civilians and rival armed opposition groups.
Since Jan. 3, a coalition of those rebel groups has been fighting ISIS across areas under opposition control, including Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqa provinces.
The fighting has killed more than 1,700 people, according to the Observatory and has drawn attention and resources away from the fight against the regime in some places.
ISIS grew from the Islamic State of Iraq, a one-time Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq that expanded into Syria after the conflict there began.
The group sought to merge with the jihadist Nusra Front in Syria, but Nusra rebuffed the overture and pledged allegiance directly to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Zawahiri says Nusra Front is Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria and has distanced his organization from ISIS, unsuccessfully ordering them to return to Iraq.
Nusra Front has largely stayed out of the fighting against ISIS, but an array of moderate brigades as well as groups from the Islamic Front, of which Suqour al-Sham is a member, have been involved in fierce clashes with ISIS.