US to boost military support if Assad dodges political offer

21 April 2013 /GÖZDE NUR DONAT, İSTANBUL – US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned the Damascus regime that the Western and Arab backers of the opposition in Syria will increase their support to the group, including non-lethal military aid, if embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refuses to politically settle a conflict that has lasted more than two years.

Meeting in İstanbul over the weekend with the core group of countries involved in the Friends of Syria, Kerry reiterated that the US supports a peaceful resolution in Syria that would see the Syrian regime at the negotiations table, but falling short of that, the country will increase its provision of aid.

“We first want to see a political solution first in Syria, with the Assad regime at the table. But in the absence of peace, the US would be helpful in providing more international aid,” said Kerry without elaborating at a press appearance after the hours-long meeting of the Friends of Syria in İstanbul on Saturday. At the Sunday press briefing, Kerry added, “I can’t tell you how quickly it will change things on the ground.” “I can promise you that as soon as I return to Washington, I am going to press as hard as I can” to get aid to the opposition within a matter of weeks, he vowed.

“This has to happen quickly; it has to have an impact,” he added.

Foreign ministers from 11 countries supportive of the Syrian opposition and a delegation from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), including Interim Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto, Coalition President Moaz al-Khatib and Chief of Staff of the SNC’s Supreme Military Council (SMC) Gen. Salim Idriss, have gathered in İstanbul to discuss the future of the crisis-torn country.

“We made advances at this meeting. The crisis is already threatening the stability of neighboring countries. Our international partners share the view that we should have a peaceful transition in Syria. We support an orderly transition. The US is committed to a pluralistic, unified post-Assad Syria,” Kerry emphasized during the press meeting.

After an hours-long meeting in İstanbul, the participating countries released a joint statement noting that they have agreed to provide “military assistance” exclusively to the SMC of the Syrian coalition. This military assistance will involve armored vehicles, bulletproof vests, night vision goggles and other military equipment. However, the group decided against sending weapons, something the Syrian opposition had hoped would come out of the meeting.

The SNC has also guaranteed that the supplies provided by the international community will only be used for the purposes of self-defense against the regime’s violence in a separate statement released after the meeting. “Arms [from Qatar] and military equipment will be sent back to the relevant institutions after the revolution. We guarantee that they will be used only for the intended purpose of getting them and they will not fall into the wrong hands,” the coalition’s statement said. Kerry’s visit to meet with the Friends of Syria marks his third to İstanbul in two months. The secretary’s last visit was in early April, during which met with top Turkish officials to discuss the events in Syria and Iraq as well as the recent Turkish-Israeli rapprochement. Kerry also came to the country in early March.

The Friends of Syria statement also said that “if the Syrian regime rejects this opportunity [of a renewed offer for a negotiated settlement], further announcements on the expansion of our assistance will follow.”

Regarding allegations that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons, the statement noted that international demands for “an immediate investigation by the UN to substantiate these claims” have been blocked by the regime. The Friends of Syria stated that they will pursue the allegations that chemical weapons have been used and warned that if these allegations are proven correct, there will be severe consequences. They did not elaborate further.

The Friends of Syria also urged the international community to provide more financial aid to the countries hosting the Syrian refugees to enable them to better respond to the refugees’ basic needs. Kerry also noted that the US is committed to a unified post-Assad Syria, where all ethnic and religious groups in the country, including Kurds, Alawites, Druzes and Christians, would have a future. The US secretary of state maintained that the Syrian crisis has reached a critical point if the allegations that the regime has used chemical weapons prove correct.

Meanwhile, Moaz al-Khatib, president of the SNC, stated at the press conference that the opposition is determined to protect the territorial integrity of Syria. “We will not allow any group in the opposition to get ahead of the other groups. We are for justice and equal opportunities for everyone in Syria, a Syria where the rule of law prevails,” Khatib said.

‘Iran should take its hand out of Syria’

“We do not want Iran to be involve in any more crime in Syria. We want it to withdraw its troops and everything from Syria. It should also tell Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria,” Khatib said, condemning the military support of Iran to the Syrian regime.

We also expect Russia to assist the Syrian opposition,” he added.

Russia, a staunch supporter of and seller of arms to the Syrian regime, has several times vetoed Western-backed UN Security Council resolutions condemning the brutality of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Iran is also a staunch supporter of the regime battling against the Syrian insurgents, having strong political ties to Syria’s Baath regime. Stating that “Syria is passing through a period unprecedented in history,” Khatib also noted that the aid the opposition has received from the international is not enough and the opposition is waiting for more to assist them in their struggle. Also speaking at the press conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told the Syrian opposition that they are “not alone in this struggle. Both humanitarian assistance and assistance given to the armed Syrian opposition on the ground will continue.