A decision on Sunday by the 83-nation strong Friends of Syria alliance to formally provide the Syrian opposition with non-lethal aid has earned mixed reactions from opposition leaders, who say the agreement is “a good step, but not good enough” for Syria's beleaguered opposition.
Anti-regime Syrian National Council (SNC) President Burhan Ghalioun requested arms from the friends group during its meeting on Sunday, telling the alliance that “we cannot stand back and watch our people being massacred.” The call for lethal assistance, however, has proven a hard sell to powers fearful that such assistance could send the country into a full-fledged civil war. On Sunday, Turkey, the United States and other powers took the middle road, agreeing to a deal to send communications equipment to help the country's rebels organize and to transfer $100 million to pay the salaries of opposition fighters.
Members of the SNC, which was named the opposition’s “legitimate interlocutor” at the conference, appeared to be divided over the potential of Sunday’s agreement, with SNC member Khaled Khodja telling Today’s Zaman on Monday that the current agreement “gives the legitimacy and means to the SNC to support the [anti-regime] Free Syrian Army [FSA].”
Meanwhile, SNC member Lama al-Atassi told Today’s Zaman that the aid agreement was a “good step, but not good enough,” adding that he wanted to see “quick action to support the FSA,” including the provision of weapons by the alliance.
The deal comes as consensus grows among Friends of Syria members that a joint UN-Arab League peace deal will likely fail to stem violence in Syria, pushing the group to focus on aid for Damascus’s opponents in what by all signs will be a prolonged conflict. Upwards of 10,000 people have already been killed in the year-long confrontation between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the national movement to see his ouster.
The SNC demand for arms is also a sign of just how far the conflict has diverged from the opposition movement’s original aim of fomenting a Tahrir Square-like coup of civil resistance. The SNC, originally a staunch opponent of violence against Damascus, has reluctantly but inevitably moved towards condoning the use of force.
The urgency of opposition calls to see arms given to the FSA, the loosely coordinated military deserters who wage an insurgent war against Syrian security forces, has grown in recent months, as the FSA has been pushed from former rebel strongholds in the east and northwest of the country. Over the weekend, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi declared on state television that the rebellion had been defeated, stating that “the battle to topple the state is over.”
Reports have also circulated stating that the FSA’s primary source of weapons, the black market in Lebanon, is drying up, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have reneged on earlier promises of weapons deliveries.
Khaled Abo Salah, an opposition spokesman who broadcasts from Homs, commented on the urgency of supplying rebel forces in a video posted on YouTube on Sunday, saying that despite international pledges of diplomatic support, the opposition’s most pressing need is “the provision of weapons on a regular basis to the FSA.”
On Sunday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that supplies, including satellite phones and night vision goggles, would soon be in opposition hands, telling the friends group that “we are discussing with our international partners how best to expand this support.” Clinton and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly agreed to the equipment deal in the week leading up to Sunday’s summit.
Gulf nations eager to see Assad’s ouster also pledged support at Sunday’s meeting, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates donating $100 million to pay opposition fighters. Officials from the Gulf states suggested the money might encourage soldiers loyal to Assad to defect.
SNC member and Syrian dissident Khaled Khodja suggested that the funds might also help the group buy needed weapons from abroad, stating that “the agreement recognized Syrians’ rights to defend themselves and gave us adequate resources. Nobody is directly giving weapons to the FSA, but it will increase their ability to purchase them, maybe from abroad.”
One thing the promised communications equipment may vastly improve is the largely absent coordination among the scattered militias who make up the FSA. Oytun Orhan, a Syria specialist for the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told Today’s Zaman in March that the group’s structure is “highly disorganized” and that FSA units in neighboring cities are “rarely even acquainted with each other.” The FSA is officially directed by defected Syrian Col. Riad al-Assad from his base of operations inside of Turkey’s southern province of Hatay, but critics have dismissed the “leadership” as having little impact on the conflict in Syria.
Growing cries from the opposition for arms have been matched by consistent signals from the various members of the Friends of Syria in recent weeks that any sort of arms agreement remains off the table. On Sunday, a meeting of US House of Representatives intelligence leaders concluded that fears of al-Qaeda infiltration of Syrian opposition groups and the continued support of Iran and Russia make such an agreement “a bad idea.” Congressman Mike Rogers, chairman of the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN that the US is likely to take a “support role,” encouraging diplomacy rather than “sending in arms and hoping for the best.”
Washington’s anxiety over arms transfers has been sharpened by fears that terrorists could easily use the chaos in Syria to steal some of the country’s extensive biological and chemical weapons.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have promised to send weapons in recent months, also seem unlikely to deliver weapons in the near future, with AP reporting that a promise by a Saudi diplomat in March that “weapons are on their way” to Syria has been checked by the failure of the Saudis and the Jordanian government to agree on arms shipments through Jordan.
*Gözde Nur Donat contributed to this article from İstanbul.