‘Friends of Syria’ debate arming rebels

Push for peace talks in Geneva also on agenda as foreign ministers from 11 countries begin talks in Qatari capital Doha.

U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Ziadeh walks with U.S. Secretary of State Kerry and Ambassador Fakhroo on Kerry''s arrival in Doha
The meeting is aiming to create momentum for the starting of peace talks in Geneva to end the crisis [Reuters]

Foreign ministers of the “Friends of Syria” group are holding talks in Doha, the Qatari capital, to discuss how to organise the delivery of military and other kinds of aid for Syrian rebels.

Saturday’s meeting began only hours after Syrian rebels stated that they had received a new shipment of weapons from their allies and just days after the US announced its decision to deliver arms to the fighters.

The gathering is discussing demands for more weapons by the rebels who are requesting anti-tank and anti-air missiles to fight against government forces, an issue that has been on the table for months.

The talks are being attended by ministers from Britain, France, the US, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Egypt.

Al Jazeera’s Basma Atassi, reporting from the meeting, said British Foreign Secretary William Hague defined the talks as “an opportunity to coordinate the thinking and action” of the eleven-state group.

“There is no change in the UK policy towards Syria and on the much debated question of providing lethal aid of any kind to the opposition,” Hague said. “We have taken no decision to do that.”

He also said it is up to the UK parliament to take such a decision, adding that his country would focus on delivering more humanitarian aid and promoting a political solution. “At the end there is only a political solution to this conflict,” he said.

‘Coordinated efforts’

“The goal of the meeting is to be very concrete about the importance of every kind of assistance that’s coming from the London 11 countries [Friends of Syria] … being fully coordinated and going through only the Syrian opposition coalition,” a US official told the AFP news agency on Friday.

“This is all in support of energising, re-energising, the Syrian opposition coalition leadership to work to select its leadership,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the meeting would also address how to coordinate Western aid.

“We will try in Doha to sum up the situation on the ground and to see how we can aid the opposition coalition and arrive at a political solution,” he said.

Western aid for opposition forces so far has been confined to non-military resources like sophisticated communications equipment.

The Syrian rebels recently announced that they had received a new delivery of weapons.

“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,” Louay Muqdad, a media spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed umbrella organisation of the Syrian rebels, told AFP.

“We have begun distributing them on the front lines, they will be in the hands of professional officers and FSA fighters.”

The shipment follows reports of Saudi-funded small arms and anti-tank missiles being delivered to Aleppo, where rebels are facing a build-up of regime forces, which are being supplied by Russia.

The White House last week declared that Syria had crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons in the country’s civil war, and in response, US President Barack Obama had authorized sending arms to some rebel groups.

Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from Doha, said the eleven countries who support the opposition are at an important crossroads.

“There are divisions [as to whether] arming the opposition is the best way to solve the crisis,” Bays said pointing at France and UK as the leading supporters of delivering arms to the opposition forces.

Geneva push

The meeting in Doha also aims to create momentum for starting peace talks in Geneva to end the crisis.

Russia and Western countries have agreed to push the process to encourage the Syrian regime and the opposition to sit down at the negotiation table for talks in the Swiss city. 

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said that as long as there is a conflict, there remains a need to find a framework for a dialogue because ultimately the Syrian opposition and some parts of the government are going to have to find a political solution.

“We are trying to find a way for the Russians to play some type of constructive role and to stay engaged in the process,” Rhodes said, referring to Moscow’s continued support of Assad’s government, adding that Geneva is the only framework that currently existed.

Regarding discussions on peace talks, Bays said that there is a great deal of division between the West and Russia.

“No one believes that those talks can take place unless both sides are brought to the table by the joint will of the US and Russia,” he said.