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‘Friends of Syria’ meet under pressure to arm rebels

The main international backers of Syria's opposition gather in Istanbul on Saturday with the rebels hoping Western and Arab countries will step up their support,including with arms.

Written by PTI | Istanbul | Published: April 20, 2013 12:15:30 pm

The main international backers of Syria’s opposition gather in Istanbul on Saturday with the rebels hoping Western and Arab countries will step up their support,including with arms.

The 11-nation core group of the “Friends of Syria” including the United States,European nations and Arab countries will hold talks with key figures in the opposition battling President Bashar al-Assad.

The group has so far struggled to come up with a united strategy to end the violence in Syria,despite fighting that has seen more than 70,000 killed and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes.

The opposition is pressing its foreign allies to supply arms to the rebels,but analysts said it was unlikely Saturday’s meeting will mark a major breakthrough.

Speaking to US lawmakers this week,US Secretary of State John Kerry said the talks would be an effort to “get everybody on the same page,” but also voiced caution.

“We’re trying to proceed carefully,to make sure that we’re not contributing to a worse mess,but that we’re actually finding a constructive path forward,” Kerry said.

A senior US official said yesterday that Kerry would propose boosting Washington’s non-lethal aid to the rebels at the Istanbul meeting.

The aid would be for “moderate opposition groups,including the Syrian Opposition Coalition,local councils,civil society organisations and the Supreme Military Council,” a senior State Department official told reporters.

US media reports have already suggested Washington was preparing to provide battlefield gear to the rebels such as body armour,vehicles and night-vision goggles,but not arms.

Many in the West have raised concerns about arming the rebels,fearing weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist groups like the Al-Nusra Front,which this month pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

Britain and France have been pushing for a European Union arms embargo to be allowed to expire by the end of May,but have appeared more wary since the Al-Qaeda pledge.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told European lawmakers this week there is a “whole series of arguments” on both sides of the arms debate and that the issue would be discussed in Istanbul.

Supporters of arms supplies have said the rise of Islamist groups like Al-Nusra is only a stronger argument for providing weapons to more moderate voices in the Syrian opposition.

Among opposition figures expected to attend the talks are Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib,the outgoing head of the main opposition Syrian National Coalition,and Ghassan Hitto,who last month was picked as PM of an opposition interim government.

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