x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Syria rebels 'have a right to weapons from abroad'

Saudi Arabia has called for the arming of rebels fighting to topple the Syrian president.

ISTANBUL // Rebels fighting the forces of Bashar Al Assad have the right to weapons supplies from other countries if the world fails to stop the bloodshed, Turkey's foreign minister told The National on the eve of a second international conference on Syria.

"The international community should take very concrete steps to prevent a massacre," Ahmet Davutoglu said. "If it doesn't happen, of course those who are being attacked will look for all the alternatives to defend themselves."

Saudi Arabia, one of the countries attending today's conference in Istanbul, has called for the arming of rebels fighting to topple the Syrian president.

The kingdom, along with Qatar, is also in favour of carving out a safe haven inside Syria from which the opposition can operate. Turkey, which shares a border of 900 kilometres with Syria, would be a key route for any large-scale weapons shipments to the rebels.

"People say there should not be any foreign intervention, but the flow of arms to the Syrian regime continues, and that's not acceptable," Mr Davutoglu said.

He compared the situation in Syria to that in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina the early 1990s, when Serb forces attacked Muslim civilians in a war that eventually triggered armed intervention by Nato.

"I made an analogy to the Bosnia case, when there was an asymmetric war: on one side an army with full capacity of attack, on the other side victims without any proper equipment to defend themselves. This is not sustainable."

The world should not allow the Syrian government to continue with the violence. "Either there must be some international effort to stop these attacks, or there should be a clear message to the regime that there will be some international position to stop the bloodshed."

Mr Davutoglu was speaking before today's second meeting of the Friends of Syria, a group of western and Arab nations seeking to increase the pressure on Mr Al Assad to end the violent repression of protests that has killed more than 9,000 people since March last year. At least 75 countries will be represented at the meeting, which follows a conference last month in Tunis.

The United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan called on the Syrian forces to end operations immediately. Mr Al Assad accepted Mr Annan's plan on Tuesday, but his security forces have continued their attacks. Turkey, a former close ally of Syria, ended its own mediation efforts last year, when the Syrian regime refused to enact political reforms.

Mr Davutoglu said he expected the Istanbul meeting "to give a clear message to the regime that these methods will not be tolerated by the international community. In Tunisia we gave a strong message, but now the message will be much stronger."

In fact, he said, Turkey hoped the meeting would "take certain measures, new measures, steps, to stop the bloodshed".

Mr Davutoglu said he could not go into detail before the conference. "But we want to have some more concrete steps."

He also said the meeting would discuss getting humanitarian aid into Syria and would strengthen the role of the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group. A third meeting of the Friends of Syria would take place in Paris, he said.

The Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army, a group of Syrian deserters fighting government troops, have repeatedly called for weapons, but Mr Annan has warned against further militarisation.

Mr Davutoglu, who put the number of Syrian defectors at 60,000, would not be drawn on whether he agreed with the Saudi position on arming the opposition, but he stressed it was the international community's duty to prevent further bloodshed.

"When the oppression continues and people are being killed - if the international community is idle and cannot do anything, people will start to think that they have the right of self-defence," he said. "The responsibility is on the shoulders of the international community, rather on the people who are trying to defend themselves."

While Mr Davutoglu, 53, a close aide and former chief adviser to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, reiterated his government's support for Mr Annan's mission, he warned that Damascus was trying to gain time. He said Mr Annan's plan "should not be seen as if it's a mediation for the continuation of the Syrian regime".

The Turkish foreign minister said Mr Al Assad was hoping he could secure his position by crushing the opposition militarily.

"This is what I call the illusion of dictators," said Mr Davutoglu, a former professor of international relations. "They think that if they have time, they will control the situation and then they will make a cosmetic type of change."

In Syria, as in other countries that shook off authoritarian regimes, this tactic would fail, Mr Davutoglu insisted. Even after a year of repression, Syrians were still calling for their democratic rights. "A regime or a leader cannot survive if that regime or that leader fights against its own people."

Mr Davutoglu said the Syrian government lost its legitimacy the moment the regular army attacked cities with artillery, helicopters and the navy. "Even during a war, this is unacceptable. When you fight another country - even in that case it's a war crime to shell a city indiscriminately." He said Turkey condemned that kind of military operation as a "crime" when Israel attacked Gaza in late 2008. "Now the Syrian army is doing this against their own cities."

Mr Davutoglu said he had no doubt that the Al Assad regime was doomed. "Such a regime cannot continue after all the crimes they committed against their own people. It is just a matter of time."