x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Syria rebels in plea for weapons to hold Qusayr

US secretary of state condemns Hizbollah role in war and tells Assad assistance for opposition will be stepped up if he fails to join new peace talks. Hugh Naylor reports from Amman

US secretary of state John Kerry meets with security personnel before boarding his plane in Muscat.
US secretary of state John Kerry meets with security personnel before boarding his plane in Muscat.

AMMAN // Syrian rebels pleaded yesterday for weapons and ammunition to combat Hizbollah fighters and Assad regime forces in the crucial battle for Qusayr.

"If we lose Qusayr, we lose Homs, and if we lose Homs, we lose the heart of the country," said one rebel fighter.

George Sabra, acting chief of the Syrian National Coalition, said "forces from outside Syria" were seeking to destroy the country and called for arms to be sent to Homs and Qusayr as the strategic town is pounded by regime airstrikes and shelling.

The plea came as the Friends of Syria group met in Amman. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, sought support from Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar and the UAE for the latest peace initiative - a call he issued jointly with Russia for a conference expected soon in Geneva, Switzerland.

Mr Kerry said it was clear that Hizbollah fighters were taking part in the civil war, with active support on the ground from Iran.

"There are several thousand of Hizbollah militia forces on the ground in Syria who are contributing to this violence and we condemn that," he said.

The battle for Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, has brought the worst fighting in months. By drawing in the Hizbollah Shiite militia from southern Lenanon it has raised new fears that a war that has killed 80,000 people could surge across borders and ignite sectarian conflict across the Middle East.

The US and its allies will step up support for the rebels in their "fight for the freedom of their country" if Bashar Al Assad's regime fails to engage in peace talks in good faith, Mr Kerry said.

"In the event that we can't find that way forward, in the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate Geneva in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support, growing support for opposition in order to permit them to continue to fight for the freedom of their country," Mr Kerry said.

The Assad regime considers Qusayr vital as it links Damascus with the coastal heartland of the minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that controls the Syrian government's upper echelons.

The city also forms a vital supply hub for Syria's largely Sunni-led rebels, and government forces have sought to take it with assistance from fighters from the Shiite fighters of Hizbollah who are arriving from over the border.

Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the fighting resembled a proxy war between regional powers. Saudi Arabia, along with other Sunni allies, has been drawn deeper into Syria to fight Hizbollah and Mr Al Assad's forces, which are aligned with Riyadh's enemy, Shiite Iran.

"It's increasingly drawing the regional powers into this black hole," Mr Tabler said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 31 militants from the Lebanese group have died since Sunday in the battle for Qusayra.

Forces loyal to Mr Al Assad received a significant boost this month with the delivery of advanced weaponry from Russia, whose military and political support has proved crucial for the regime.

Mr Kerry warned, however, that MrAl Assad would be miscalculating if he continued with his counter-offensive because any gains enjoyed by his forces would be temporary.

On Tuesday, the US Senate's foreign relations committee voted 15 to 3 to support a bill to send weapons to the rebels. The measure received cross-party support, although it did not say which of Syria's many insurgent groups would receive US weapons.

The US has refrained from directly arming Syrian rebels, in part because of fear that weapons could fall into the hands of groups linked to Al Qaeda, such as Al Nusra Front.

"I don't think we know who we're arming. And the truth is, it changes every day. Sometimes resistance fighters are fighting each other," said Tom Udall, a Democrat and one of the three senators to oppose the measure, which faces a full Senate vote.

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's office in Beirut, said the prospect of such groups wielding advanced weaponry was ominous for the region.

"The rise of Al Nusra in Syria sends chills down Jordanian spines," Mr Salem said.

Spillover from Syria's fighting has expanded to fronts other than the 1.3 million United Nations refugees who have fled to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey,

It was reported yesterday that Ankara closed its crossings with Syria, following two car bombs in a Turkish border town this month that killed 51 people. Turkey, which has called for Mr Al Assad's removal, accuses Syria's government of involvement.

On Tuesday, Israeli soldiers and Syrian-government troops exchanged fire in the Golan Heights. Israel has attacked targets inside Syria three times this year, targeting weapons bound for Hizbollah. Damascus has vowed revenge.

Broader sectarian tensions appear to be worsening, with Sunni-Shiite relations across increasingly on edge.

In the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, scores of supporters of a prominent Sunni religious figure prevented a funeral for a Hizbollah fighter killed in Qusayr by blocking roads.

Wracked by a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, Lebanon's delicate mosaic of religious and ethnic groups has increasingly been aggravated because of unrest in Syria.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Reuters and the Associated Press

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