BEIRUT/WASHINGTON: Rebels in southern Syria say they are planning a spring offensive against the capital Damascus, as the White House continues to mull its options after the failure of this month’s latest round of Geneva II peace talks.
Amid reports that opposition backers are set to deliver sophisticated weapons to the rebels to help tip the military balance, the U.S. still believes that diplomacy is the best way to end the war but all options were being considered, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday, after a second round of peace negotiations broke up in Switzerland over the weekend without making progress.
The Wall Street Journal Friday cited unidentified Arab diplomatic sources as saying that shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons would shortly make their way to the rebels from Jordan and Turkey, as part of an initiative by Gulf states disappointed with the lack of results in Geneva.
In an article published Tuesday, the newspaper said the White House was reviewing its options in the wake of Geneva, with no-fly zones and stepped-up training of rebel forces among the possibilities.
However, the U.S. is opposed to the supply of shoulder-fired missiles, a senior Obama administration official told Reuters.
The official, traveling with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Tunisia, said “the administration remains opposed to any provision of Manpads to the Syrian opposition,” referring to shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.
The U.S. has long opposed supplying rebels such weapons due to concerns they may fall into the hands of forces that may use them against Western targets or commercial airlines.
The paper said the Saudis had held off providing such weapons in the past because of American opposition.
Meanwhile, talk of a renewed focus on the southern front has arisen after the weekend’s reshuffle in the rebel Free Syrian Army leadership. Gen. Salim Idriss was replaced by the top rebel commander in Qunaitra province, which is next-door to Deraa province, a stronghold of the mainstream FSA.
Both regime and opposition sources say that an offensive targeting Damascus from the south would include fighters trained by Western forces in neighboring Jordan.
The Syrian army, meanwhile, is redeploying troops in Qunaitra province located on the cease-fire line with Israel and stepping up shelling on rebel positions in Deraa to stop any advance, opposition fighters say.
Both regime and opposition sources say the offensive on Damascus will involve thousands of rebels who have been receiving combat training for the past year from the United States and other Western countries in Jordan.
“Deraa [province] is the gateway to Damascus. The battle for Damascus starts from here,” said rebel commander Abdullah al-Qarazi, a former officer in the Syrian army.
“For now, we only have guarantees [for weapons] from the countries that support” the revolt against President Bashar Assad, he said.
“If the promises are honored, God willing we will reach the heart of the capital,” in a bid to break army sieges on the western and eastern Ghouta districts outside the capital, Qarazi told AFP.
Qarazi, a brigadier general in the Syrian army before defecting, said rebels in Deraa have “made steady progress in recent months” despite intensifying army bombardment of the province.
Since last summer, rebels have seized parts of the city of Deraa and several positions close to the border with Jordan which could be used as a conduit for arms.
Rebels also set up a coalition of 47 factions and opened communications channels with fighters in Damascus province and in Qunaitra. But the army is preparing to fight back, “redeploying troops” to the Qunaitra front from areas of Damascus, said Ali al-Jolani of Qunaitra’s rebel military council.
And a Syrian politician said a major battle was planned in Deraa ahead of a possible fresh round of peace talks between the regime and the opposition.
When the second round of Geneva broke down over the weekend with no progress achieved, no date was announced by the U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
A source close to the regime has said the talks could resume next month but this could not be independently verified.
Meanwhile the Syrian army has in recent days stepped up air raids on the southern province and pounded rebel areas and villages with explosive-packed barrels, a monitoring group and activists said.
For his part, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon is convinced that the Geneva process is the best way to resolve the Syrian conflict and urges all sides to return to the table, his spokesman said.
“The secretary-general remains convinced that Geneva II is the way to go, and he is looking at the parties to think long and hard and to come back as soon as possible so that this process can continue,” spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters in New York.
“This is a process, not a single event taking place in one or two meetings ... this is going to take a long time.”
“The secretary-general remains determined to push ahead with this, as is [U.N. mediator Lakhdar] Brahimi,” Nesirky added.
Brahimi said Saturday he was “very, very sorry” after the talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition broke off without result after three weeks. No date has been set for a resumption of negotiations. Nesirky said Brahimi would be coming to New York “at some point” to brief Ban and the Security Council on his mission.