Syrian Opposition Says It Rejects Talks Unless Rebels Get Arms

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WASHINGTON -- The Syrian opposition will not attend the proposed Geneva conference on the crisis in Syria unless rebel fighters receive new supplies of arms and ammunition, the top rebel military commander said Friday.

"If we don't receive ammunition and weapons to change the position on the ground, to change the balance on the ground, very frankly I can say we will not go to Geneva," Gen. Salim Idris said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in northern Syria. "There will be no Geneva."

Secretary of State John Kerry announced in May that the United States and Russia planned to organize an international meeting that would bring together representatives of President Bashar al-Assad's government and the Syrian opposition. The aim of the meeting, which has emerged as the centerpiece of Mr. Kerry's Syria strategy, is to negotiate a transitional government that would take control if Mr. Assad agreed to vacate his position. A date for the Geneva conference has yet to be set.

But since that announcement, Mr. Assad's military position has been strengthened by flights of arms from Iran and the involvement of thousands of fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. The change of fortunes on the battlefield was illustrated last week when the Syrian military and Hezbollah fighters captured the town of Qusayr.

The proposal to hold talks in Geneva at a point when the Syrian opposition has suffered a bitter reversal has led many in the opposition to question the West's strategy. In effect, they say, Mr. Kerry is insisting that the Syrian opposition sit down with representatives of a Syrian president who appears as determined as ever to hang on to power and at a time when the opposition's leverage has been diminished.

General Idris said that he supported the idea of a Geneva meeting in principle, but was worried that it would backfire if it occurred before the rebel position was strengthened with new supplies of arms and ammunition.

Going to the "Geneva conference is a Western idea, but we have to be powerful on the ground as F.S.A., as opposition," he said, using the initials for the rebels' Free Syrian Army.

"What can we ask for when we go very weak to Geneva?" he said. "The Russians and the Iranians and the representatives of the regime will say: 'You don't have any power. We are controlling everything. What you are coming to ask for?' "

General Idris leads the Supreme Military Council, the military wing of the opposition that the United States is backing. Rebel fighters also include extremists from the Nusra Front, which is allied with Al Qaeda and is not part of the council.

The political wing of the Syrian opposition, though still fragmented and struggling to pick new leaders, also dismissed the possibility of peace talks and lashed out at Western and Arab countries for failing to arm the rebels.

Speaking at a news conference in Istanbul, George Sabra, the acting head of the Syrian Coalition, said that despite Mr. Assad's "continued violations of red lines that have been extended repeatedly," the Western and Arab countries had refused to let Syrians "protect their children."

"We say in such circumstances it is very hard to talk about any international conferences or political initiatives," he said.

The remarks reflected a growing frustration, if not desperation, among the opposition.

"There is agreement on one point within opposition circles: the regime, Iran and Hezbollah, supported by Russia, aim to win; the U.S. aims for talks," said Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former senior State Department official. "This helps to explain the opposition's reluctance to attend a Geneva conference and the difficulties it's having organizing itself around a coherent goal."

At the State Department, Mr. Kerry and his aides have long said that it is vital to change Mr. Assad's "calculation" about his ability to maintain his grip on power in order to facilitate a political transition.

With Mr. Assad digging in and his forces making headway on the battlefield, any leverage the United States might be able to bring to bear on the Assad government appears to depend on the possibility that the British and French might send arms to the rebels later this summer, and the prospect that the United States might expand its assistance to the armed opposition, which has consisted of food rations and medical kits.

Mr. Kerry has also been calculating that Russia, which has been backing the Assad government politically and by providing arms, might put pressure on Mr. Assad to give up power in order to forestall the potential collapse of the Syrian state.

Mr. Kerry said Monday, "We are trying to prevent the sectarian violence from dragging Syria down into a complete and total implosion where it has broken up into enclaves, and the institutions of the state have been destroyed, with God knows how many additional refugees and how many innocent people killed."

At a meeting in Istanbul in late April, Mr. Kerry announced that the Supreme Military Council should be the only funnel for providing Western and Arab military support to the opposition.

In the interview, however, General Idris said that the rebels remained woefully overmatched in firepower. During the recent fighting, he said, the Assad government has made liberal use of long-range artillery, tanks, surface-to-surface missiles and warplanes. In contrast, he added, rebel forces were relying on light weapons, including AK-47s, PKC machine guns, 120-millimeter mortars and RPG-7s, a type of rocket-propelled grenade.

He declined to identify the sources of his weapons, which are believed to include arms bought in Croatia by Saudi Arabia.

General Idris said that while the West has been debating how much military assistance to provide to the moderate opposition, extremist groups like the Nusra Front have begun to play a more prominent role in the struggle.

"They are now winning sympathy from the people," he said. "They are very well financed."

The Assad government's next target, he said, is Syria's largest city, Aleppo, drawing on support from thousands of Hezbollah fighters, Iranian military operatives and Iraqi Shiite fighters.

On Saturday, a car bomb killed at least seven people in an Alawite neighborhood in the city of Homs, in an attack that seemed likely to raise new fears of a deepening sectarian conflict, according to Syrian state news media and a watchdog group. Syria's state news agency, SANA, said that a suicide bomber detonated the car near a monastery in the Adawiya neighborhood, most of whose residents belong to the same Alawite sect as Mr. Assad.

A watchdog group based in London, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed the toll, but said the target appeared to have been a government checkpoint in the neighborhood.

The fighting for Qusayr had been particularly brutal. General Idris said he had been told by rebel officials over Skype that there were more than 100 wounded that the opposition was trying to take to hospitals in neighboring countries, but that Hezbollah and the Syrian military had such a firm grip on the area that it was possible to move the casualties only at night.

"It is very difficult," he said. "I can't find the right words to describe the situation."

Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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