Syrian rebels seek missile supply

 

Beirut

Syrian opposition figures will push at a donor conference in London today for the provision of anti-aircraft missile systems to repel President Bashar al-Assad's devastating airstrikes, as momentum builds to adjust a European Union arms embargo.

Abdulbaset Seida, former head of the Syrian National Council which holds over a third of the seats in a new opposition coalition, said representatives would lay out three key demands – for formal recognition of the coalition, financial support and anti-aircraft weapons so they can establish a no fly zone without international intervention.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said would like to see the EU embargo revisited to potentially allow for the sale of "defensive arms" to the rebels, while David Cameron held a ministerial meeting to discuss policy options to solve the crisis.

Since opposition groups forged a more representative coalition to unite the disparate strands of the opposition in Doha last week, both Britain and France have ramped up their rhetoric, leading to speculation that military support is being considered.

"France's position for the moment is to say that we must not militarise the conflict, but it is evidently unacceptable that there are liberated zones and that they be bombarded by Bashar's planes," Mr Fabius said. "The issue of defensive arms will be raised."

However, it remains unclear if such comments are diplomatic bluster designed to ratchet up pressure on the regime. Any change to the embargo, without which military support from Europe is impossible, involves the agreement of all member states and could take months to push through.

The US has taken a much more cautious tack with Obama warning on Wednesday night that the world should be "on guard" about indirectly "putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm".

Still, as Turkey yesterday became the latest country to recognise the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, opposition figures remained positive.

"We believe that as the coalition is recognised the legal broker for the Syrian people, it will basically be given all the resources and means necessary to end the suffering of the Syrian people, including sophistically weaponry that will enable Syrian revolutionaries on the ground to enforce a no fly zone without foreign intervention," said Yaser Tabbara, a spokesman for the new body, officially known as the National Coalition for Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition.

Mr Tabbara said France had broken an impasse, and he expected the UK to follow suit after today's meeting in London, where representatives of from the Gulf, Europe and US will meet with the new opposition leaders.

The UK has said it wants assurances over the mechanisms for reporting and accountability within the new body before it can step up support. Jon Wilks, the UK representative to the Syrian opposition, said it is "not enough to ask for suitcases full of money", and stressed that UK policy remains focused on "non-lethal" assistance.

"We need weapons to finish the job," said Haitham al Maleh, a veteran dissident and coalition member. "The situation is desperate. If the West will not take a positive step at this time, then they will be responsible for the situation that unfolds in Syria, and the consequences of that will be felt across the world."

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