Moves to arm Syria’s opposition have been accelerated in the US following a key defeat for the rebels and a major split in the ranks of al-Qaeda-aligned jihadists, Washington officials indicated.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, postponed a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories to hold intensive talks with President Barack Obama on the next steps in the Syria crisis.
Officials told American news outlets that the administration was considering not only arming the rebels directly but even imposing a no-fly zone on the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, was also being updated, one report said, though the Foreign Office refused to confirm this. At the weekend, Mr Hague said he was prepared to put the issue of Britain supplying the rebels to a vote, following pressure from backbench Tory MPs and the Labour party.
A state department spokesman said Mr Obama would this week consider a “wider range of options”.
“Conditions on the ground have worsened. That is frankly concerning,” she added.
Western governments, keen to organise a peace conference to bring the war to a close, have been alarmed by a recent collapse in opposition morale.
The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition is in disarray, and at the weekend openly admitted that it could not consider attending a conference while rebel groups were on the back foot.
Last week, regime troops and reinforcements from Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, roundly defeated rebel resistance in the western town of Qusayr, and are now moving on Aleppo and rebel-held districts of Homs. In response, General Selim Idriss, the head of the SNC’s military wing and the most trusted opposition figure in Washington, said he wanted a guarantee of more weapons before he agreed to a peace conference, the date of which has already been pushed back.
“The pace at which the US government appears to be moving towards harder support for the rebels is much faster than has been their recently slackened push to make Geneva happen in the very near future,” said Dan Layman, a spokesman for the Syria Support Group, a pro-opposition US-based group.
Officials from the state and defence departments, the CIA and other agencies met yesterday to draw up new options for Mr Obama.
British and American support for the Geneva conference was intended to bring Mr Assad to the negotiating table after a string of rebel gains earlier in the year. Since then, he has reversed the tide and is now in a position where they fear he could resist calls for concessions.
Mr Layman said another motivating factor was a recent split which had seen support drain away from the most radical jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusra.
It has always been seen as an al-Qaeda affiliate, but large numbers of its members are said to have defected to other groups in the last month, following a takeover attempt by the Iraqi franchise, Islamic State of Iraq.
Many fighters, along with other Islamist groups, objected to the implication that their struggle was wider than the removal of Mr Assad. The main resistance to arming the rebels in both the United States and in Britain comes from those who fear heavy weapons will end up in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked groups, but the US believes it can now much more effectively control the supply, particularly through Gen Idriss.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda, has moved to end the crisis, cancelling an earlier order for the two neighbouring groups to merge, according to a report on Al-Jazeera.
The group is present on most major battlefronts, and is expected now to play a role in the defence of Aleppo, from which many of its fighters had withdrawn when The Daily Telegraph visited last month. The regime and Hizbollah have both sent troops to prepare for a fresh assault on the rebel-held half of the city.
The jihadists were also condemned by the main opposition group after reports that they executed a 14-year-old boy for blasphemy.
Source: The Telegraph
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