WASHINGTON / BEIRUT: The leader of the Syrian opposition-in-exile opened a week of meetings and public appearances in the U.S. capital Wednesday with an impassioned call for weapons to help rebels defeat the regime’s well-armed military.
Opposition forces need “efficient weapons to face these attacks including air raids, so we can change the balance of power on the ground,” Ahmad Jarba told an audience gathered at the United States Institute for Peace, at the beginning of his first ever official visit to Washington.
“This would allow for a political solution,” he insisted.
Jarba, head of the National Coalition, is to hold high-level talks this week with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and national security chief Susan Rice.
He is accompanied on his eight-day trip by the new chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Brig. Gen. Abdel-Ilah Bashir.
Jarba urged the international community to unite to stop Syrian President Bashar-Assad as he runs for office “on the dead bodies of Syrian,” condemning next month’s elections as a “farce” that would give Assad “license to kill for many years to come.”
He stressed that Syrians were not calling on the United States or the West “to send their sons to Syria.”
“We do not want Americans to die in Syria,” he insisted.
But, he said, “we do have a problem with the air forces, the air raids and the barrel bombs. This is making our lives a nightmare, so we want weapons that would neutralize” the regime’s monopoly of the skies.
“We need a small and effective quantity of weapons ... and we commit to keep them in the right hands.”
U.S. officials have refused to be drawn on the type of non-lethal aid or weapons being supplied by Washington, apart from detailing items such as night-vision goggles and communications equipment.
A senior official from the U.S. administration this week acknowledged there was “an asymmetry militarily” between the opposition rebels and the Assad regime, and insisted Washington was looking at ways to change the balance of power on the ground.
One of the principal American objections to providing the rebels with sophisticated weapons is the fear that they could wind up in the hands of Islamist extremists.
Jarba was asked about this point and told his audience about the Coalition’s nuanced stance on two groups that have bedeviled supporters of the mainstream opposition – the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has been disowned by the central Al-Qaeda organization.
The Coalition has long accused ISIS of working in league with the regime, and Jarba reiterated the stance that the two sides have rarely fought each other during the conflict, in which more than 130,000 people are believed to have died.
As for the Nusra Front, Jarba said his group “doesn’t recognize” the Al-Qaeda affiliate, while noting that it was, unlike ISIS, actually engaged in fighting regime troops.
Jarba was joined during the appearance by Michel Kilo, a leading opposition figure, who fielded a question about the likelihood of a partition of Syria.
Kilo said that dividing up the country was in the regime’s interest alone, but added that, “if it loses ground, it won’t be able to carry out” such a plan.
“There is no tendency or any serious thought in the ranks of the opposition in favor of partition,” Kilo added.
He told his audience about the division of Syria into half a dozen statelets by the French Mandate authority in the 1920s, and how the Alawite state on the coast was eventually defeated by the people for whom it was supposedly designed.
“The overwhelming majority of Alawites [today] do not support” the partition of Syria either, he insisted.