LATEST: Doha: “Friends Of Syria” Agree Urgent Military Support For Insurgents
Senior officials from 11 leading members of the “Friends of Syria”, the international coalition backing the Syrian opposition, gather today in Qatar. Overt supplies of weapons to the insurgents will be high on the agenda.
Last week the US Government, following the lead of Britain and France, said it would provide arms publicly for the first time. However, in following days Washington pulled back from the declaration, indicating that it had not made any decision on anti-tank weapons and that it would not provide anti-aircraft missiles. US officials, including President Obama, also balked at no-fly zones and strikes on the Syrian military’s airstrips.
Representatives of the 11-nation Friends of Syria group met last week in Turkey to discuss the arms supplies, with General Salem Idriss, head of the opposition’s Joint Military Command, appealing for the immediate provision of all possible weapons.
Since then, the media has been caught in confusion over whether or not insurgents have received heavy arms. Throughout the week, the Free Syrian Army — the umbrella group of the “moderate” insurgency that the US and European powers say they wish to back — warned that they had not received weapons and were in danger of losing vital territory.
On Friday, however, Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Muqdad said, “We’ve received quantities of new types of weapons, including some that we asked for and that we believe will change the course of the battle on the ground. We have begun distributing them on the front lines, they will be in the hands of professional officers and FSA fighters.”
Other reports, however, pointed to ongoing disputes, amid unconfirmed claims of Saudi-supplied arms reaching the insurgents. These reports included US officials blocking extensive Saudi shipments, and tensions over which insurgent factions can receive the weapons.
This morning, as the Friends of Syria meet, we are trying to sort out the story. Joanna Paraszczuk posts a video analysis establishing that — far from being recently delivered — “Saudi-supplied” anti-tank missiles have been used by insurgents since December.
And we will be pursuing another important feature. EA sources indicate that, while foreign-supported arms are being sent across the Turkish border to insurgents in the north — including Aleppo — those weapons are not reaching the south, where insurgents are under pressure in Damascus suburbs and Daraa. This, plus the dispute over whether to bring in foreign weapons from Jordanian bases, account for the frustration expressed by opposition fighters in those areas.
Footage of children in Binnish, Idlib Province playing at fighting Bashar al-Assad’s forces, with wooden machine guns and what appears to be a wooden toy anti-tank weapon.
Two days after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) warned that six Syrian heritage sites are endangered, the Syrian government said on Saturday that the threat to ancient sites is “gruesome”, State media reported.
The statement comes after UNESCO said on Thursday that it had placed all six of Syria’s World Heritage Sites on its endangered list — the ancient cities of Damascus, Bosra and Aleppo, the oasis of Palmyra, the castles of Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, which counts as one site, and the ancient villages of northern Syria.
In a statement on Saturday, the Syrian General Directorate for Museums and Antiques blamed “armed terrorist groups” for destroying “large chapters of Syria’s history”, but did not mention what role, if any, regime forces have played in damaging heritage sites.
Ministers from the 11 Arab and Western states forming the Friends of Syria agreed on Saturday to provide “urgent military support” to the Syrian insurgency to assist them in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad.
Reuters report that ministers agreed that the military support would be channeled via a Western-backed rebel military command, and slammed the intervention of Iranian-backed Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah and “fighters from Iran and Iraq” into the conflict.
The ministers agreed to “to provide urgently all the necessary materiel and equipment to the opposition on the ground, each country in its own way in order to enable them to counter brutal attacks by the regime and its allies,” according to Reuters.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called for a political, not a military, settlement in Syria — but urged supporters of the Syrian opposition to step up aid to the insurgency to end what he said was an “imbalance“.
Speaking at a meeting of the”London Eleven” — an offshoot of the “Friends of Syria” — in Qatar, Kerry said that insurgents needed more aid to “address the imbalance on the ground” and so they could “get to Geneva”, a reference to the planned International Peace Conference.
“Reliable civilian governments and a stronger and more effective armed opposition will better enable the opposition to be able to provide the counterweight to the initiative of Assad to reach out across borders — trans boundary — to bring Iranians, to bring Hezbollah — again, a terrorist organization — to the table,” CNN quoted Kerry as saying.
Kerry also said that he supported a transitional government in Syria that would be “chosen by mutual consent of both the Assad regime as well as the opposition”.
Present at the Doha meeting were foreign ministers from the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Russia, China and Iran oppose arming the insurgents.
Kerry’s remarks come amid reports — not new — that the CIA is training Syrian insurgent forces at bases in Jordan, and as Syrian insurgents claim they have received heavy weapons from supportive nations.
Insurgents in Aleppo announced on Saturday the start of the “Battle of Al Qadisiya”, an offensive to liberate the Western districts of the city from Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The name of the battle is significant, reflecting the increased involvement of Iranian-backed Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah. It is taken from the Battle of Al Qadisiyyah between the Arab Muslim army and the Sassanid Persian army, fought in Qadisiyya, Iraq in 636 during the first period of Muslim expansion. On the final day of the battle, Rostam was killed, signaling a Persian defeat.
The battle became a symbol of one of the great successes of early Islamic history. During the Iran-Iraq War, for example, Saddam used the Battle of Al Qadisiyyah to refer to the fighting, in an attempt to use the myth of Arab victory over the Persians. This site gives a full description of the use of the term Al Qadisiyyah in modern discourse.
This video shows reinforcements arriving in the Western Aleppo neighborhood of Khan al-Asal, just west of Al Assad Park (see map):
This video shows research facilities in Khan al-Asal burning as a result of tank shelling:
More footage of the research facilities being targeted with mortar and machine gun strikes:
Purported footage of aftermath of Syrian airstrikes on the Al Kenamat neighborhood of Deir Ez-Zur (see map) on Saturday.
As well as the airstrikes, there has been footage of fresh artillery strikes on Deir Ez-Zur on Saturday; this video shows artillery stationed on a hill, purportedly shelling insurgent-held neighborhoods in the town:
Footage of a Free Syrian Army brigade being shown how to use a Croatian RAK-12 in Aleppo on Friday.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced on Saturday that his government is increasing salaries for both civil and military employees.
The announcement comes amid increasing signs of economic pressure faced by the Syrian regime. Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi insisted earlier this week that the Government had sufficient resources to provide for its people even in the face of a 25% fall in the national currency in 24 hours.
Assad’s announcement is an attempt to ward off dissatisfaction and unrest — and defections — in the military as well as among civil employees as the 27-month conflict shown no sign of ending.
The Los Angeles Times, confirming reports from EA since January, writes that “CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons since late last year”.
Citing “US officials and rebel commanders”, the Times says that the training of Free Syrian Army members has taken place both in Turkey and Jordan. Instruction includes use of “Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter anti-tank rifles, anti-tank missiles, as well as 23-millimeter anti-aircraft weapons”.
The report also intersects with recent claims of heavy weapons being supplied to insurgents, citing “four or five Russian-made heavy Concourse [Konkurs] anti-tank missiles, 18 14.5-millimeter guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks and 30 82-millimeter recoilless rifles”.
Lebanese State media are reporting Saturday morning that 17 shells fired from Syria have landed on Lebanese territory in the Bekaa region. The shells fell on the outskirts of two towns, Al-Debabiyeh and al-Noura and have hit houses.
Al Jazeera English reports on Palestinian refugees in a camp in north Aleppo:
Adding to the story of weapons to insurgents, The New York Times profiles “a complex and active multinational effort, financed largely by Qatar, to transport arms from Libya to Syria’s opposition fighters”.
The report, co-authored by arms specialist C.J. Chivers, claims:
Weapons, which slipped from state custody as Colonel Qaddafi’s people rose against him in 2011, are sent on ships or Qatar Emiri Air Force flights to a network of intelligence agencies and Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey. From there, Syrians distribute the arms according to their own formulas and preferences to particular fighting groups, which in turn issue them to their fighters on the ground, rebels and activists said.
Qatari C-17 cargo aircraft have made at least three stops in Libya this year — including flights from Mitiga airport in Tripoli on Jan. 15 and Feb. 1, and another that departed Benghazi on April 16, according to flight data provided by an aviation official in the region. The planes returned to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The cargo was then flown to Ankara, Turkey, along with other weapons and equipment that the Qataris had been gathering for the rebels, officials and rebels said.
The article does not establish whether or not the initiative has been co-ordinated with the multilateral effort, from Turkey and from Jordan, to supply the insurgency. However, it implies that this is a separate Qatari effort, building on links with individual Libyan groups rather than the Government in Tripoli:
One former senior Obama administration familiar with the transfers said the Qatari government built relationships with Libyan militias in 2011, when, according to the report of a United Nations Panel of Experts, it shipped in weapons to rebel forces there….
As a result, the Qataris can draw on their influence with Libya’s militias to support their current beneficiaries in Syria. “It’s not that complicated,” the former official said. “We’re watching it. The Libyans have an amazing amount of stuff.”
The Local Coordination Committees claim 75 people were killed on Friday, including 20 in Damascus and its suburbs, 16 in Aleppo Province, and 13 in Hama Province.
The Violations Documentations Center records 64,238 deaths since the start of the conflict in March 2011, an increase of 94 from Friday. Of the dead, 49,381 are civilians, a rise of 50 from yesterday.
McClatchy describes the public facade for the US military’s support of Syrian insurgents from Jordan, established months ago — with arms supplies, intelligence, and training — but now being confirmed:
In a sign of deepening U.S. involvement in the Syrian crisis, the United States is leaving 700 combat-equipped American military personnel in Jordan following the end of a joint U.S.-Jordanian training exercise, President Barack Obama told Congress Friday.
The decision brings to about 1,000 the number of U.S. troops now deployed in Jordan. It came a week after the White House announced that the United States would begin providing light arms to Syrian rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Obama said the troops would remain in Jordan to help provide that country with security, but he did not say specifically what they would be doing.
“The detachment will remain in Jordan, in full coordination with the government of Jordan, until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed,” Obama wrote. “The deployment of this detachment has been directed in furtherance of U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, including the important national interests in supporting the security of Jordan and promoting regional stability.”