Syria’s opposition and its Gulf backers will press western governments this week to supply weapons to rebels, arguing that significant progress has been made to unify armed groups and bring them under civilian control.
As the Friends of Syria coalition prepares to meet in Marrakech on Wednesday, opposition leaders and Gulf officials said the time for outside direct military intervention has passed, with the rebels’ demands confined to supplies of arms, particularly anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.
Yasser Tabbara, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, the newly formed opposition front that has won western backing, said the rebels, who have made significant military advances in recent weeks, were capable of imposing a no-fly zone on their own, if given more advanced anti-aircraft weapons. He said the opposition also wanted the European Union arms embargo to be lifted and all financial and military aid to be channelled through its institutions.
Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah, Qatar’s minister of state for foreign affairs and the country’s man on Syria policy, said one of the outcomes of the Marrakech meeting should be to allow Syrians to defend themselves and counter President Bashar Al Assad’s air force.
“At this stage, after 20 months, I think the people of Syria do not want us to provide them with a no-fly zone,” he told a conference in Bahrain organised by London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They want us to provide them with the means for them to impose their own no-fly zone. They are now ready and prepared to impose their own no-fly zone. The lack of means is what is holding them back.”
Tabbara said a majority of the main brigades fighting the Al Assad regime agreed at the weekend to a unified military command, with a senior military defector, Salim Idriss, appointed as chief of staff. The 30-member military council was formed after days of meetings in Turkey, under the watchful eye of western and Arab officials, and its members were picked by the brigades themselves. It is designed to act as the military arm of the Syrian National Coalition.
The coalition is also hoping to announce this week the name of the prime minister for the planned provisional government, with Riad Hijab, the Assad regime prime minister who has defected, among those under consideration.
However, it is far from clear that the opposition’s efforts will be sufficient to persuade the US and European states to provide military support to the rebels, amid persistent worries that arms could fall into the hands of extremist groups fighting alongside the rebels.
The exact composition of the council and the extent to which it represents the rebels will also have to be tested, as will the council’s effectiveness, given that several past attempts at unity have failed.
The US has signalled that it could follow France and Britain in recognising the coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, giving the group a diplomatic boost. But western diplomats say Washington is more likely to play the role of coordinator of robust military assistance in the future, rather than provider.
Syrian rebels are believed to have received as well as captured some anti-aircraft missiles, but it is not clear they have captured enough to pose a serious challenge to Al Assad’s air superiority.
The US has been particularly concerned about Jabhat Al Nusra, a jihadi group that is not a member of the new military council but has played an increasingly high-profile role in recent rebel military successes. Washington has indicated to the opposition that it planned to list it as a terrorist organisation.
Opposition leaders, however, argue that the group has been welcomed by rebels because it has brought much-needed financial and military capabilities and they have urged the US administration to delay the listing.
On Sunday, a group of rebels that included Jabhat Al Nusra took over a regime military command centre in Aleppo province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based pro-opposition monitoring group.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have so far been the main suppliers of military equipment to Syria’s armed opposition but diplomats say the rebels require intelligence and greater amounts of arms, some of which have to be provided by western states. Most urgently they need shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles known as Manpads, anti-aircraft guns and more light weaponry.
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, told reporters in Manama that no action on Syria had been ruled out but UK policy remained to provide non-lethal assistance. In order to maintain some flexibility, however, Britain was among countries that pressed recently for the EU sanctions, including an arms embargo, on Syria to be renewed for three months only, rather than a year.