Kerry Supports Syrian Opposition, Mum on Request for Arms
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday stood side-by-side with Syrian opposition chief Ahmad Jarba in a public show of support, but made no mention of the rebels' plea for heavy weapons to help end the war, AFP reported.
Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), has said he would ask the administration in Washington for anti-aircraft weapons to battle daily barrel bombings unleashed by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and help change the balance militarily on the ground.
U.S. officials privately acknowledged he made the request in talks with Kerry at the State Department, but they refused to be drawn on the response.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, meanwhile, pointed to a series of new measures including an extra $27 million in non-lethal aid for the rebels on the ground, as well as Treasury sanctions against Syrian officials.
"I have nothing to announce in terms of any change in our position," said State Department Jen Psaki, according to AFP, referring to Washington’s long-standing policy to provide only non-lethal military support such as communications equipment, body armor and night-vision goggles.
"We're continuing to build the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate, armed opposition," she added.
"I'm not going to outline that or detail that from here, but we continue to consider a range of options."
On Wednesday, Jarba told a think-tank in Washington that rebels fighting to oust Assad need "efficient weapons to face these attacks including air raids, so we can change the balance of power on the ground."
This would "open the door for a real political solution," he insisted, committing his Syrian National Coalition to ensuring that any weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles would not fall into the wrong hands.
So far, there has been reluctance to arm even the Syrian rebels who are considered “moderate”, with U.S. lawmakers concerned that the weapons could reach factions like the jihadsit Al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Rebels said back in June of 2013 they had received Russian-made “Konkurs” anti-tank missiles supplied by Saudi Arabia. Other reports said that the Central Intelligence Agency had begun moving weapons to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses and plans to start arming small groups of vetted Syrian rebels within a month.
While in Washington, Jarba is also expected to meet with President Barack Obama, who in March was reportedly considering allowing shipments of new air defense systems to Syrian rebels.
As Kerry welcomed Jarba to the State Department on Thursday, he said that the opposition leader "understands better than anybody, the stakes and the struggle and the fight against extremism.”
"We are committed to do our part to support the moderate opposition in its efforts to provide a legitimate voice to the aspirations and hopes of the Syrian people," he added, according to AFP.
Kerry praised Jarba and the SNC for building "an inclusive and moderate institution" committed "to the protection of all people, all minorities, all rights within Syria."
Speaking in Arabic through a translator, Jarba thanked Kerry for Washington's support "for the struggle of the Syrian people, for freedom and democracy, and also to lift the injustice and fight oppression and dictatorship that Bashar Al-Assad is engaging in. "
But he stressed the Syrian people were looking "to the superpower and country that plays a leading role in the world."