Friends of Syria to supply urgent rebel aid

Western and Arab opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed on Saturday (local time) to give urgent military support to Western-backed rebels, aiming to stem a counter-offensive by Assad's forces and offset the growing power of jihadist fighters.

Assad's recapture of the strategic border town of Qusair, spearheaded by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, and an expected assault on the divided northern city of Aleppo have alarmed supporters of the Syrian opposition.

The US administration responded by saying, for the first time, it would arm rebels, while Gulf sources say Saudi Arabia has accelerated the delivery of advanced weapons to the rebels over the last week.

Ministers from the 11 core members of the Friends of Syria group agreed "to provide urgently all the necessary materiel and equipment to the opposition on the ground", according to a statement released at the end of their meeting in Qatar.

The statement did not commit all the countries to send weapons, but said each country could provide assistance "in its own way, in order to enable (the rebels) to counter brutal attacks by the regime and its allies".

The aid should be channelled through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, a move that Washington and its European allies hope will prevent weapons falling into the hands of Islamist radicals including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

The ministers also condemned "the intervention of Hezbollah militias and fighters from Iran and Iraq", demanding that they withdraw immediately.

As well as fighting in Qusair, Hezbollah is deployed alongside Iraqi gunmen around the Shi'ite shrine of Sayyida Zainab, south of Damascus, while Iranian military commanders are believed to be advising Assad's officers on counter-insurgency.


Two Gulf sources told Reuters that Saudi Arabia, which started supplying anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels on a small scale two months ago, had accelerated delivery of sophisticated weaponry.

"In the past week there have been more arrivals of these advanced weapons. They are getting them more frequently," one source said, without giving details. Another Gulf source described them as "potentially balance-tipping" supplies.

Rebel fighters say they need anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons to stem the fightback by Assad's forces in a civil war that has killed 93,000 people, driven 1.6 million refugees abroad and cost tens of billions of dollars in destruction of property, businesses and infrastructure.

Rebel spokesman Louay Meqdad said the Supreme Military Council, led by former Syrian army general Salim Idriss, had received several batches of weapons.

"They are the first consignments from one of the countries that support the Syrian people and there are clear promises from Arab and foreign countries that there will be more during the coming days," he told Reuters Television in Istanbul.

The increasingly sectarian dynamic of the war pits mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against forces loyal to Assad - who is from the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam - and has split the Middle East along Sunni-Shi'ite lines.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani of Qatar, which along with Saudi Arabia has been one of the most open Arab backers of the anti-Assad rebels, said that supplying them with weapons was the only way to resolve the conflict.

"Force is necessary to achieve justice. And the provision of weapons is the only way to achieve peace in Syria's case," Sheikh Hamad told ministers at the start of the talks.

"We cannot wait due to disagreement among (UN) Security Council members over finding a solution to the problem," he said.

The meeting in Qatar brought together ministers and senior officials of countries that support the anti-Assad rebels - France, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Britain and the United States - although the fractured Syrian opposition itself was notably absent.

Sheikh Hamad said all but two countries had agreed on the kind of support to provide to the rebels. He did not name the dissenters, but Germany and Italy have both said in the past they oppose arming the rebel brigades.

The final statement expressed concern at Syria's worsening humanitarian crisis, which prompted the United Nations to launch a US$5 billion appeal earlier this month - its biggest ever.

It called on the world "to shoulder its responsibilities by taking urgent and tangible actions to alleviate the Syrian people's suffering". In a message that appeared aimed at Assad, it also called for "cross-border humanitarian access" in Syria.


Speaking before the start of talks, British Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated that London had yet to take a decision on arming the rebels, but said that only by strengthening the opposition could the West hope to bring about talks for a political settlement.

"At the moment, this crisis is on a worse trajectory. It is set to get worse," Hague said. "I don't want to understate the severity of it, and the bleakness of it."

"We won't get a political solution if Assad and his regime think they can eliminate all legitimate opposition by force, and so we do have to give assistance to that opposition," he said.

The United States and Russia, which back opposing sides in the conflict, hope to bring them together for negotiations in Geneva originally scheduled for this month. Hague said there was little prospect of that happening "in the next few weeks".

Moscow, which says it will not break military supply contracts with Damascus, opposes arming rebel forces that it says include terrorist groups, and has warned that a swift exit by Assad would risk a dangerous power vacuum.

In northern Syria, rebels announced an offensive on Saturday that they said aimed to capture the western districts of the city of Aleppo from government forces.

Assad's troops have been fighting rebels in rural areas around Syria's biggest city and are believed to be reinforcing in the region, ahead of their own expected assault on rebel-held parts of the contested northern hub.

In Damascus, the army sustained its bombardment of the eastern rebel-held district of Qaboun and soldiers clashed with rebels in the Barzeh district, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.