x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Syria debate shifts: is it time to arm the rebels?

At least 39 people were killed Friday when Syrian forces shelled Homs for the 21st consecutive day.

Syrian refugees in Jordan receive aid distributed by the Emirati Red Crescent on Friday.
Syrian refugees in Jordan receive aid distributed by the Emirati Red Crescent on Friday.

GAMMARTH, TUNISIA // Western and Arab powers met yesterday in this Tunis suburb to increase international pressure on Syria's president and demand a halt to his regime's ferocious assault on rebellious cities and towns.

While those countries want a ceasefire to allow medical aid into Syria, Bashar Al Assad's determination to crush the insurgency could shift debate to whether to arm his opponents, analysts said.

In recent weeks Mr Al Assad has answered calls for restraint by stepping up attacks.

At least 39 people were killed yesterday when Syria regime forces shelled Homs for the 21st consecutive day and tens of thousands rallied nationwide to demand Mr Al Assad's removal.

Four people where killed in the bombardment of the Homs district of Baba Amr.

Four others, including a woman and her daughter, were killed in Khaldiyeh, another neighbourhood of Homs, activists said.

A team from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent entered Baba Amr yesterday to evacuate two wounded western journalists and the bodies of two others, the ICRC said.

On Thursday, United Nations investigators accused Mr Al Assad's regime of crimes against humanity including shooting unarmed women and children, and said they had compiled a list of officials and military commanders deemed responsible.

Yesterday in Tunisia, Saudi Arabian foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, said that giving weapons to the Syrian opposition "is an excellent idea".

Asked at the start of a meeting with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, if he thought arming the Syrian opposition was a good idea, the Saudi minister called it an excellent idea "because they have to protect themselves".

Many countries have condemned the bloodshed but struggled for ways to stop it.

Mr Al Assad has shrugged off economic sanctions and continued attacks even as Arab League monitors visited Syria last month.

However, if Mr Al Assad were finally to agree, the UN and Arab League would send in a joint peacekeeping force made up of civilian police officers with the permission of the ruling authority in Syria, whether it is Mr Al Assad or a successor.

Called "The Friends of Syria", the group that met yesterday has no more leverage than efforts by previous groups, to make Mr Al Assad leave. But a diplomat, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity, said the demand by the dozens of nations involved yesterday will increase pressure on Mr Al Assad and his allies to see that his demise is inevitable.

This month Russia and China, both firm backers of Mr Al Assad, vetoed a proposed UN resolution calling on him to step down.

Both countries also turned down invitations to yesterday's conference, attended by foreign ministers from more than 60 countries and members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), Syria's leading opposition group.

A draft statement from the conference called on Syria "to implement an immediate ceasefire and allow free and unimpeded access by the United Nations and humanitarian agencies to carry out a full assessment of the needs of Homs and other areas."

Such proposals, however, would not necessarily deter Mr Al Assad from pursuing attacks against his opponents, analysts said.

While Mr Al Assad might agree to short-term humanitarian measures, he is unlikely to bow to demands that he relinquish power, said David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, in Washington, and former US ambassador to several Arab countries.

"I don't think we'll see anything to protect civilians being slaughtered in places like Homs," said Marina Ottaway, head of the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "What the conference could do is to get the discussion started on how military aid could be provided."

Countries including the United States and France have ruled out military intervention. However, Mrs Clinton hinted on Thursday that the US may at least be mulling the prospect of a stronger insurgency.

"There will be increasingly capable opposition forces," Mrs Clinton said in London. "They will from somewhere, somehow find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures."

Governments keen to see Mr Al Assad defeated may warm to that idea, said Jeffrey White, a defence fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former US intelligence officer on the Middle East.

"Humanitarian intervention, corridors, sanctions - these have no dramatic effect on the way the regime operates," Mr White said. "The regime is fighting to win."

Saudi Arabia's delegation walked out of the "Friends of Syria" meeting yesterday over what it saw as the gathering's "inactivity", Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television said. However, a Saudi official said it had only left to attend bilateral talks.

The television station said Prince Al Faisal left the meeting after saying that focusing on humanitarian aid to Syria was "not enough".

jthorne@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Reuters. the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse