US ponders arming Syria rebels as Hezbollah-backed government forces gain upper hand

Washington meetings come in wake of rebels' loss of Qusair

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The Independent Online

The United States could be about to arm opposition groups in Syria as government forces, backed by Hezbollah, appear to gain the upper hand in the bloody two-year civil war.

Meetings are planned in Washington this week, which could decide to approve the supply of lethal weapons to rebel groups on the ground. In recent weeks opposition fighters have suffered significant setbacks, including the loss of the key town of Qusair and it is believed that government forces will soon launch a sustained attack in opposition strongholds in the north, around Aleppo, and in Homs.

Pro-government newspapers in Syria have suggested that troops are deploying heavily in the area and that an attack could come within days. Al-Watan reported that the army was now, "deploying heavily in the countryside near Aleppo in preparation for a battle that will be fought inside the city and on its outskirts. Besieged areas will be freed in the first stages and troops which have been on the defensive will go on the offensive," it said.

It is thought that US officials are considering a range of options, including the establishment of a no-fly zone which would involve the deployment of American airpower in the region. More likely options include providing smaller arms via Turkey. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, has postponed a scheduled trip to the Middle East to attend the meetings and will now travel to the region next week.

The decision to arm the rebels is fraught with difficulty. There are an increasing number of Islamist groups operating against Bashar al-Assad's forces, and the proliferation of weapons to rebel groups runs the risk of American arms finding their way to these groups. There is also concern that some of those fighting against the government lack the military training or discipline to use the weapons correctly.

However, the recent influx of thousands of fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in the conflict, which tipped the battle for Qusair in the government's favour, is thought to have persuaded influential voices in Washington that is now time to back certain, approved factions.

The US has also come under pressure in recent weeks as evidence grows that chemical weapons have been used in the conflict, a development that last August President Barack Obama said would constitute crossing a "red line". The US has so far not fully endorsed findings by the UK, France and the UN, all of which has said that chemical weapons have been used, mostly by regime forces.

Mr Obama has ruled out deploying American troops, but the US and a number of European countries are now starting to think that it is increasingly impossible for them to stay on the side lines of the conflict. At least 80,000 people have died in the war, while more than a million have been displaced.

The UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has promised that the House of Commons will be offered the chance to vote on the issue before the UK agrees to send weapons to rebel groups.