Unless the bloodshed in Syria stops, the region could descend into a chaotic sectarian conflict, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday, as he called for an urgent political resolution to the war that has dragged on for two years and claimed 93,000 lives.
The top US diplomat and his counterparts from 10 Arab and European nations agreed at a daylong meeting in Qatar to step up military and other assistance to the Syrian rebels. But Kerry would not disclose details of the aid, saying only that it would re-balance the fight between the rebels and President Bashar Assad's better-equipped forces that are increasingly backed by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters.
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"The continued bloodshed at the hands of the Assad regime and the increasing involvement of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, threaten the very prospects of a political settlement and of peace," Kerry said, adding that the US and other nations are not backing the rebels to seek a military victory in Syria.
"We do so to ... find a political settlement," he said. "Reliable civilian governance and a stronger and more effective armed opposition will better enable the opposition to be able to provide the counterweight to the initiative of Assad to reach out across borders ... to bring Iranians and to bring Hezbollah – again, a terrorist organization – to the table."
Rebels say they have already received new weapons from allied countries – but not the US – that they claim will help them to shift the balance of power on the ground where regime forces have scored recent military victories. Experts and activists said the new weapons include anti-tank missiles and small quantities of anti-aircraft missiles.
"Our information from Doha says that five countries have decided to start arming us immediately, and four other countries will give us logistical and technical support and, at a later stage, arm the Free Syrian Army," a spokesman for the opposition fighters, Loay AlMikdad, said in an interview with Qatar's Al-Jazeera TV. He said the nations were both Arab and non-Arab, but he would not elaborate.
It was Kerry's first meeting with his counterparts about aid to the Syrian rebels since President Barack Obama announced that the US would send lethal aid to the opposition despite concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists in Syria. That decision was partly based on a US intelligence assessment that Assad had used chemical weapons, but Kerry expressed deeper concern about how Iran and Hezbollah fighters had joined the fight.
Syrian Rebels in Qusair (Photo: Reuters)
"That is a very, very dangerous development," Kerry said. "Hezbollah is a proxy for Iran. ... Hezbollah in addition to that is a terrorist organization."
Kerry blamed Hezbollah and Assad with undermining efforts to negotiate a settlement and set up a transitional government.
"We're looking at a very dangerous situation," that has transformed "into a much more volatile, potentially explosive situation that could involve the entire region," Kerry said.
The war already has spilled into neighboring countries and is increasingly being fought along sectarian lines, pitting Sunni against Shiite Muslims and threatening the stability of Syria's neighbors.
Kerry said top US diplomats are ready to go to Geneva to meet with UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and other officials next week to advance the political process.
Doha was the first stop on Kerry's two-week trip through the Mideast and Asia. He is to discuss a wide range of bilateral issues on Sunday and Monday with Indian officials in New Delhi – just one stop on a seven-nation tour where he will tackle prickly US foreign policy issues – from finding peace between the Israelis and Palestinians to trying to gain traction on US talks with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan war.
James Dobbins, US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived in Doha on Saturday, but talks with the Taliban, which were supposed to take place in coming days, have not been scheduled. They are to be held at a controversial new political office the Taliban just opened in Doha.
Kerry said the Americans and Qataris were on board to help negotiate a political resolution to the war, but it was up to the Taliban to come to the table. "We are waiting to find out whether the Taliban will respond, Kerry said, lowering expectations about the prospects for negotiation.
"We will see if we can get back on track. I don't know whether that's possible or not," Kerry said. "If there is not a decision made by the Taliban to move forward in short order, then we may have to consider whether the office has to be closed."
At the close of the meeting, the eleven nations – the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Britain, Germany, France and Italy – expressed concern about the growing sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict, renewed their call on the regime to let UN investigators probe the reported use of chemical weapons and condemned the intervention of Hezbollah militias and fighters from Iran and Iraq.
In a joint press conference in Tehran, Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and his Lebanese counterpart Adnan Mansour lambasted Western powers that arm and support Syrian opposition fighters.
"I am shocked to see how Western powers speak of human rights and act otherwise when it comes to Syria – where they arm cannibals who fought in Syria so that they (opposition fighters) continue their atrocities more than before," Salehi said.
In their communique, the ministers expressed support for a transitional governing body that would take charge of military and other government institutions. But they added that "Bashar Assad has no role in the transitional governing body or thereafter."
That is a sticking point with Russia, a key Assad ally that has resisted calls for his removal.
Russia may have worked to assure Assad government's attendance at any future peace conference, but Moscow also has been undermining peace efforts by sending more weapons to help the Syrian government's counteroffensive against the rebels.
Russian leaders warn that if Assad steps aside, the resulting power vacuum could be quickly filled by al-Qaeda connected rebels, who are well-armed and aggressive.
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