Free Syrian Army prepares diplomatic push with senators in Washington next month for direct US arms supplies as Geneva 2 peace talks expected to fail.
Haitham al-Maleh, senior member of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), Syria’s main political opposition group (Photo: AP)
Syrian rebels will make a renewed push for direct US arms supplies after the Geneva peace talks which resume on Friday, assuming they fail as expected to bring an end to the conflict.
A strengthened political advisory team to the Free Syrian Army, effectively now the pro-western faction in a multi-sided civil war, is preparing a diplomatic push with senators in Washington next month.
It intends to capitalise on the battle underway between its forces in northern Syria and the militant al-Qaeda branch, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams, to present itself as the best answer to terrorism in Syria.
"We are using this opportunity in Geneva to turn the tables on Bashar al-Assad and show we are a credible partner and a legitimate institution," Oubai Shahbandar, an adviser to the opposition leadership told The Telegraph. "We are the only solution to fighting al-Qaeda."
Both the opposition and western diplomats supporting it said they were encouraged by the opening day of the talks on Wednesday, despite the acrimony of the public sessions. The day was dominated by a long and bitter diatribe by Walid al-Muallem, President Assad’s foreign minister, against his "backwards" and "backstabbing" Middle Eastern neighbours, supporters of the rebel cause.
He also became involved in a heated argument with Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, who was chairing the talks.
The diplomats claimed that Mr Muallem’s behaviour had alienated non-aligned countries represented and put pressure on the Russians, who back Mr Assad but have been less aggressive in their public defence of him in recent weeks.
Ahmed al-Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition, said he had been told by the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris last week that Moscow was not "sticking to Assad". "What he said was he was not sticking strongly to Assad but the solution should be negotiated among Syrian people."
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, dropped a heavy hint on Wednesday night that the Obama administration was once more open to the idea of supplying the rebels, countering suggestions by retired diplomats and others that it was prepared to see Mr Assad stay in power for want of a good alternative.
Mr Kerry was asked whether there would be more support for the "armed opposition" if the talks failed. "What you see in the direct talks between the opposition and the Assad regime will not be the full measure of effort being expended in order to try to find a solution," he said. "Without going into any further detail, I will just say to you that lots of different avenues will be pursued, including continued support to the opposition and augmented support to the opposition."
President Obama promised arms to the rebels in June, but in the event never authorised any direct supplies. Saudi Arabia stepped in with some limited shipments, but the White House took growing fright at the increasing role of al-Qaeda in the north. However, the US and Saudi Arabia have since helped to reconstitute different non-al-Qaeda factions in the north, and regard both the current fighting and the opposition’s performance in Geneva as a key test of whether they merit further support.
No-one believes that the talks process in Geneva will lead to a breakthrough to end the conflict. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy who will conduct the talks, met both sides on Thursday night to agree an agenda including possible prisoner exchanges, local ceasefires and humanitarian relief. But the two delegations will not negotiate face-to-face, with Mr Brahimi shuttling between the two rooms where they will be sitting.
Haitham al-Maleh, a former political prisoner who is part of the opposition delegation, said he believed that even if the peace talks did not finish the Assad regime, renewed international pressure would. "It is clear the international community including Russia need to finish the situation," he said.
But Samer al-Taqi, a former head of a Damascus think-tank, said he thought the war would now last for five or ten years. "The purpose of the Geneva talks is to help shape the conflict," he said.
By Richard Spencer, Geneva - 23 Jan 2014