Sunday, April 1, 2012

Call of duty: Saudi Arabia bent on arming Syrian rebels

A defected Syrian soldier, now a member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), stands at a camp in the northern rebel stronghold of Idlib near the Turkish border on March 17, 2012. (AFP Photo / STR)

Source: Russia Today

Calls to arm the Syrian rebels are growing louder, with Saudi Arabia saying that supplying weapons is a “duty.” The desire to tool up rebels comes as major Syrian opposition groups have appealed to neighboring states to allow the transit of arms.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Sunday that top ranking Arab and Western officials will be discussing further ways to apply pressure on President Bashar al-Assad. The promise of more humanitarian aid to the rebels was also high on the agenda.

But as her Saudi Arabian counterpart has revealed, this help might not be limited to medicine and blankets. During a joint news conference with Clinton, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said “the arming of the [Syrian] opposition is a duty, I think, because it cannot defend itself except with weapons.”

The request comes ahead of the 70-nation 'Friends of Syria' meeting in Turkey.

Hillary Clinton has held consultations with her counterparts from most of the Gulf states, elaborating a joint position on Syria ahead of the meeting in Istanbul. As long-time allies, the US and Saudi Arabia have called into question Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ability to stop the bloodshed. They urged the UN peace envoy to set a clear “timeline" for further steps because, as Clinton put it, the Syrian regime continues “to shell civilians, lay siege to neighborhoods, and even target places of worship.”

Since the Syrian president refused to withdraw troops from the frontline so as not to let rebels rest and regroup, the US and its Gulf allies are looking to limit Assad’s ability to finish the armed opposition off completely.

Saudi Foreign Minister insists the Syrian regime is committing "nothing less than crimes against humanity.”

So the pressure on Damascus will definitely be raised even further at the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Turkey.

Turkey’s choice

As Istanbul prepares to play host to the “Friends of Syria”, the country has found tiself centre stage in the push to pressure the Assad regime, which could prove a stern test for the host nation, reports RT's Sara Firth.

Between sponsoring the Syrian opposition meetings, providing sanctuary for the Free Syrian Army, and promoting the public face of the Syrian National Council, fears abound that Turkeys actions could undermine diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

“It (Turkey) has a common history with Syria, so certainly it feels justified that it is going to interfere to a certain extent as long as violence continues,” Yavuz Baydartold, a journalist from Today's Zaman, told RT.

Despite having formerly built up close economic ties with Syria and sharing more than 900 kilometers of border with its neighbor, the distance between the two countries is now a Gulf. Increasingly, Turkey's stance has seemingly aligned more closely with that of Arab countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia who have strongly called for regime change in Syria.

“Turkey stepped forward very early in the conflict and adopted a very confrontational attitude towards President Assad,” recalls Jeremy Salt, Professor of Middle East Politics at Bilkent University. “They said they gave him advice that he didn’t take and therefore… they committed themselves to a struggle against him. In fact, they went further than anyone else.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council themselves are battling their own fierce divisions. The group has reportedly lost a number of members recently as accusations mount that they are not representing the interests of the Syrian people.

Former SNC Member Kamal Labwani said “The Syrian National Council as it is now represents those who work outside, not inside Syria. And they are influenced by the Muslim brotherhood. Lots of liberals and activists are out of the SNC.”

With the Syrian opposition desperately trying to bridge their divisions, the Turkish government is now left in a difficult situation.

“Turkey has no option. After these things that we observed the only thing that Turkey can push is a regime change, otherwise Turkey's capacity of maneuvering to the Arab World through Syria will be very constrained,” Professor Gokhan Bacik from Zirve University argues.

And as Turkey gears up for the Friends of Syria meeting, when it comes to understanding the complex Syrian crisis and Turkey's role in it, most are still left guessing what is really going on behind closed doors.

If Turkey is to re-emerge as a major global power – Syria is certainly a test. Turkey has very much been seen as leading the way in applying pressure to its former ally to put an end to the violence. But many in the Turkish government are all too aware that one wrong move now could lead the country into a confrontation with the Syrian army and further escalate an already extremely volatile regional situation.

Damascus says the battle to topple the state is over but “as long as the interference is coming from other countries and organizations arming one side – we are not going to see an end to this,” commented blogger and peace activist Joel Poindexter.

The Assad government has refused to lay down arms first despite calls from special envoy Kofi Annan to stop military activities. The Syrian government says a one-sided ceasefire “might give rebels even more incentive to continue on,” Poindexter told RT, so “when it is one-sided like that – we are not to see much hope in bringing that to an end.”

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