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Syrian jets strike, rebels await U.S. weapons




By Oliver Holmes :


 Syrian artillery and warplanes pounded rebel areas in Damascus on Saturday as President Bashar al-Assad's foes pleaded for advanced weapons from the United States, which has promised them unspecified military aid.

Western powers have been reluctant in the past to arm Syrian insurgents, let alone give them sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles that might fall into the hands of Sunni Islamist insurgents in rebel ranks who have pledged loyalty to al Qaeda.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander Salim Idriss said on Friday that rebels, pushed back by Assad's forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies in recent weeks, urgently needed anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, as well as a protective no-fly zone.

"But our friends in the United States haven't told us yet that they are going to support us with weapons and ammunition," he said after meeting U.S. and European officials in Turkey.


A source in the Middle East familiar with U.S. dealings with the rebels has said planned arms supplies would include automatic weapons, light mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.


The United States, which called for Assad to step down early in the 27-month-old Syrian uprising, this week pledged military support to rebels, citing what it said was the Syrian military's use of chemical weapons - an allegation Damascus has denied.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday chemical attacks by Syrian forces and Hezbollah's involvement on Assad's side showed a lack of commitment to negotiations and threatened to "put a political settlement out of reach".

The United States and Russia announced in May they would try to convene peace talks involving the Syrian government and its opponents, but no date has been set. Kerry had not previously expressed such pessimism about prospects for the conference.


NO-FLY ZONE


Outgunned rebels have few ways to counter Assad's air power. The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said jets and artillery had attacked Jobar, a battered district where rebels operate on the edge of central Damascus, on Saturday.

It said heavy artillery was also shelling opposition fighters in the provinces of Homs, Aleppo and Deir al-Zor.

A Turkish official said 71 Syrian army officers, including six generals, had defected to Turkey, in the biggest single mass desertion from Assad's military in months.

Western diplomats said on Friday Washington was considering a limited no-fly zone over parts of Syria, but the White House noted later that it would be far harder and costlier to set up one up there than it was in Libya, saying the United States had no national interest in pursuing that option.

Russia, an ally of Damascus and fierce opponent of outside military intervention, warned against any attempt to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria using F-16 fighter jets and Patriot air defence missile systems from Jordan. "You don't have to be a great expert to understand that this will violate international law," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

The United Nations says at least 93,000 people, including civilians and combatants, have died in the Syrian civil war, with the monthly death toll averaging 5,000 in the past year.

Abu Nidal, from the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, said U.S. help was welcome, but questioned how effective it would be.

"I doubt the influx of weapons will significantly tip the balance into our favour," he said via Skype. "They might help push back regime offensives of the last few days."

Abu Nidal's faction is not part of the more moderate FSA, Washington's chosen channel for military aid, but he said the two groups fight alongside each other on the battlefield.

"We are not at odds with the Free Syrian Army now. We fight in one formation," the Islamist fighter said.


MILITARY INTERVENTION

Other opposition sources have also voiced scepticism over what type and quantity of arms the United States would deliver.

The surface-to-air missiles that rebels say they need to ward off Assad's air force are particularly worrisome for Western powers as they could be used against commercial jets.

Western nations have demanded Assad's removal, but have stopped short of arming Syrian rebels or deploying air power as they did to help Libyans topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Intervening against Assad is considered riskier because Syria has a stronger military, sits on the sectarian faultlines of the Middle East, and is supported by Iran and Russia, which has vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria.

Yet an apparent shift in the military momentum in Assad's favour, especially with the arrival of thousands of fighters from Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, has made his swift removal look unlikely without outside intervention.

However, Israel's defence minister suggested the pendulum could still swing the other way, despite the capture this month of Qusair, a former rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border.

"Bashar al-Assad's victory in Qusair was not a turning point in the Syrian civil war, and I do not believe that he has the momentum to win," said Moshe Yaalon, who is visiting Washington.

"He controls just 40 percent of the territory in Syria. Hezbollah is involved in the fighting in Syria and has suffered many casualties in the battles, and as far as we know, it is more than 1,000 casualties," Yaalon said in a statement.

"We should be prepared for a long civil war with ups and downs."

Reuters

By: manager Date Added: 2013-06-17 Comment: 0 Views :3298

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