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Middle east

Syria, Russia dismiss US chemical weapons claims

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-06-15

After US President Barack Obama’s administration said it would supply Syrian rebels with military aid, Syria and Russia dismissed US intelligence claims that President Bashar al-Assad’s troops had used chemical weapons against rebels.

US President Barack Obama’s administration has said it will supply Syrian rebels with small arms and ammunition after concluding that President Bashar al-Assad’s troops used chemical weapons against opposition forces in the country, in a move that has marked a decisive shift in Syria’s more than two-year conflict.

While the Obama administration’s decision to provide lethal aid to rebel forces came as welcome news to advocates of a stronger American response, Syria accused the US of exploiting false information on the use of chemical weapons as an excuse to intervene in the country.

Russia warns US over arming Syrian rebels

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has told US Secretary of State John Kerry that more US military support for forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could stoke violence in the Middle East, the ministry said in a statement on Friday.

During a telephone conversation, Lavrov “stressed that such a step (military support) risks escalating (violence) in the region, while accusations against Damascus of the use of chemical weapons by the United States are not backed up by verified facts,” the statement said.

(REUTERS)

“The White House...relied on fabricated information in order to hold the Syrian government responsible for using these weapons, despite a series of statements that confirmed that terrorist groups in Syria have chemical weapons,” Syria’s foreign ministry said on Friday.

“The United States, in resorting to a shameful use of pretexts in order allow President Obama’s decision to arm the Syrian opposition, shows that it has flagrant double standards in the way it deals with terrorism,” it added.

Russia, which has acted as one of Syria’s closest allies, also dismissed US evidence that Assad’s forces used the deadly nerve agent sarin against rebel forces.

“I will say frankly that what was presented to us by the Americans does not look convincing,” President Vladimir Putin’s senior foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov said. “It would be hard even to call them facts.”

Ushakov also pointed to joint Russian and US efforts to bring Syria’s government and rebels together for talks, arguing that a broader American response will only serve to complicate things.

“If the Americans ... carry out more wide-scale aid to the rebels and opposition, it will not make organising the international conference easier,” Ushakov said.

Obama’s ‘calculus’

Syria’s civil conflict first began in 2011, as widespread anti-government protests swept across the Arab world. Since then, it has gone on to become by far the deadliest and most difficult of those uprisings to resolve, with more than 93,000 people killed, according to the UN.

Over the past two years, Western countries have repeatedly demanded Assad leave power but declined to use the same kind of force they did in Libya, because of the far greater risk of fighting a country that straddles sectarian divides at the heart of the Middle East and is backed by Iran and Russia.

Just months ago, Western countries believed Assad’s days were numbered. But momentum on the battlefield has turned in his favour, making the prospect of his swift removal, and an end to the bloodshed, appear remote without outside intervention.

Thousands of seasoned fighters from Lebanon’s pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia joined the conflict in recent weeks, helping the Syrian government recapture the strategic town of Qusair. Damascus says its troops are now preparing for a massive assault on Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, which has been largely under rebel control since last year.

Activists reported an intensified assault on parts of Aleppo and its countryside near the Turkish border overnight, sparking some of the most violent clashes in months.

The use of chemical weapons provides a straightforward reason for Washington to intervene. Deputy National Security Adviser Rhodes said Washington now believed 100-150 people had been killed by government poison gas attacks on rebels.

“The president ... has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line,” he said. “He has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.”

Western powers have been reluctant in the past to arm the rebels, worried about the rising strength of Sunni Islamist insurgents among them who have pledged loyalty to al Qaeda. European countries like France say the best way to counter such Islamists is to provide more support for mainstream rebels.

The White House said Washington would now provide “direct military support” to the opposition. A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed it would now include arms as opposed to “non-lethal” aid sent in the past.

That puts once-reluctant Washington a step in front of its allies Paris and London, which have forced the European Union to drop a ban on arming the rebels this month but still say they have not yet taken a decision to send arms.

Syrian rebels already receive light arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They have asked for heavier weapons including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

US and European officials are meeting the commander of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, Salim Idriss, on Friday in Turkey.

Qassem Saadedine, a Supreme Military Council commander, called Obama’s decision to send weapons “very brave”.

“Our hope is that the weapons will start arriving in the coming weeks, but we are still in talks about when and how to supply weapons. My hope is we will start seeing a change in the next two weeks.”

Islamist rebel fighters on the ground in Syria were more sceptical. “All of us inside Syria know the truth is America hates Sunni Muslims,” said Abu Bilal, a Sunni insurgent in Homs.

“We consider America an enemy and see it as quite unlikely that it will actually give the mujahideen weapons. Instead it will be preparing its own agenda, so that it can hit the rebels just like it will hit the regime,” he told the Reuters news agency.

An Islamist field commander in Hama said he would take the weapons if he could get them: “Everyone here right now is working on the principle that their enemy’s enemy is their friend. America is against Bashar right now, at least publicly.”

“As for us, we will look at the issue this way: we do not object to groups that take weapons from America. We will object to those who try to spread its secular ideas in Syria.”

Fight for Aleppo

Assad forces tried overnight to storm the rebel-held eastern districts of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and commercial hub, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based, pro-opposition monitoring group.

The move sparked some of the fiercest battles in months. Activists also reported artillery and air strikes in the rebel-held countryside in the north of the province.

Syrian state media have been touting plans for “Northern Storm,” a looming campaign to recapture the rebel-held north.

Aleppo would be a far more difficult target than Qusair. Assad’s forces only hold a few routes and pockets of territory in the province, mostly in isolated Shiite villages.

Assad’s main advantage so far has been the ability to use air power to resupply troops and bomb rebel areas, along with its use of long-range missiles. But Western support for rebels or a no-fly zone would change the current balance of power.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-06-14

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