BEIRUT: A State Department official Tuesday denied a newspaper report claiming that the White House had “lifted its veto” on deliveries of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, or MANPADS, to Syrian rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad.
“We have not changed our position on providing MANPADS to the Syrian opposition,” the official, who requested anonymity, told The Daily Star.
“We have made very clear publicly our concerns about this particular system because it has a proliferation risk that does not serve our interest.”
The official was responding to an article in Al-Hayat, published Tuesday, that cited multiple sources as saying President Barack Obama had made the decision as part of a strategy of “gradual escalation” against Damascus, in a bid to pressure the Assad regime to negotiate a political solution to the 3-year-old war.
It said the decision was reached in the wake of a visit by Ahmad Jarba, the head of the opposition-in-exile National Coalition, to Washington and Paris, where he repeatedly voiced his group’s demand for weapons to neutralize the regime’s air power.
The report said the western governments’ concerns over measures to keep the weapons out of the hands of “extremists” were also discussed as part of the supposed policy shift.
Also Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Obama is “close to authorizing a mission led by the U.S. military” to train moderate rebel factions, which would expand Washington’s role in the conflict.
The reports followed several days of fierce clashes on various fronts, as rebels seized the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, while both sides said they were making progress in the Damascus suburb of Mliha, near the highway leading to the international airport.
Nusra staged four suicide bomb attacks on army positions Sunday, leaving dozens of casualties, in a bid to cut off Idlib province from the coast.
“Four Nusra Front fighters carried out suicide attacks this morning, driving vehicles packed with explosives into four regime forces’ checkpoints in the Jabal al-Arbain area near Ariha city,” said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-regime group.
The photo of one of the alleged perpetrators, Abu Huraira al-Amiriki (the American), circulated on social media.
The Observatory said that dozens of troops were killed or wounded, without giving specific figures.
The air force also struck the area, killing two rebels and wounding another 15, it added.
The army controls the cities of Idlib and Ariha in Idlib province but much of the countryside is under rebel control. Ariha lies on the road from Idlib to Latakia on the coast, the heartland of Assad’s regime. The rebels are “determined to cut off the road before the presidential vote” on June 3 that is to be contested only in regime-controlled areas, according to the Observatory. Nusra also claimed responsibility Monday for two car bombs that killed at least 10 people in the city of Homs.
The Observatory said Tuesday warplanes carried out 10 airstrikes against Mliha, southeast of Damascus, following reports in pro-regime media that the army was on the verge of seizing the area, while pro-opposition outlets have said rebel groups were repelling attacks by government forces and paramilitaries.