12-04-2021 06:26 AM Jerusalem Timing

“Friends of Syria” Meet amid Calls to Arm Rebels

“Friends of Syria” Meet amid Calls to Arm Rebels

The main international backers of Syria’s opposition gather in Istanbul on Saturday with the militant rebels hoping Western and Arab countries will step up their support.

"Friends of Syria", Istanbul 2012The main international backers of Syria's opposition gather in Istanbul on Saturday with the militant rebels hoping Western and Arab countries will step up their support, including with arms.

The opposition is pressing its eleven foreign allies -- including the United States, European nations and Arab countries -- to supply arms to the rebels, but analysts said it was unlikely Saturday's meeting will mark a major breakthrough.

Speaking to US lawmakers this week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the talks would be an effort to "get everybody on the same page."

"We're trying to proceed carefully, to make sure that we're not contributing to a worse mess, but that we're actually finding a constructive path forward," Kerry claimed.

A senior US official said late Friday that Kerry would propose boosting Washington's non-lethal aid to the rebels at the Istanbul meeting.

The aid would be for "moderate opposition groups, including the Syrian Opposition Coalition, local councils, civil society organizations and the Supreme Military Council," senior State Department official told reporters.

US media reports have already suggested Washington was preparing to provide battlefield gear to the militant opposition groups such as body armor, vehicles and night-vision goggles.

Many in the West have raised concerns about arming the rebels, fearing weapons could fall into the hands of mist groups like the Al-Nusra Front, which this month pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

Britain and France have been pushing for a European Union arms embargo to be allowed to expire by the end of May, but have appeared more wary since the Al-Qaeda pledge.

Supporters of arms supplies have said the rise of extremist groups like Al-Nusra Front is only a stronger argument for providing weapons to more moderate voices in the Syrian opposition.

Among opposition figures expected to attend Istanbul talks are Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the outgoing head of the main opposition Syrian National Coalition, and Ghassan Hitto, who last month was picked as prime minister of an opposition interim government.

Analysts said much of the talk would focus on getting the transitional government up and running in areas of Syria under rebel control, mainly in the north.

"The truth is they (the interim government) are not a factor on the ground and they won't have any credibility until they are," Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center told Agence France Presse.

However, Michel Stephens, a Qatar-based researcher for the RUSI think tank, said he doubted there would be any movement on meeting the rebels' demands for arms.

"That debate is still well and truly stuck in the mud," he said.

Many have accused the Friends of Syria of dithering while the country burns, with Shaikh dubbing the group "The Coalition of the Unwilling."

For his part, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this week the group was making a "negative contribution" by undermining efforts at political dialogue.