Europe sets stage for possible arming of anti-Assad fighters as McCain visits Syrian rebel leader


McClatchy Foreign Staff

After a contentious debate over policy towards Syria, the European Union agreed Monday to let its embargo on arms shipments to Syrian rebels – and the Syrian government – expire at the end of the month, possibly the best news that the beleaguered forces battling to topple President Bashar Assad have had since their uprising began 26 months ago..

William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said there was “no immediate decision to send arms” to the rebels, in a tweet reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Britain and France had been the main backers of an end to the embargo, which expires Thursday, while Austria, Sweden and the Czech Republic were among those objecting.

The news upstaged a dramatic show of support for the rebels by U.S. Sen. John McCain, who slipped into Syria earlier Monday from southern Turkey and met with Salim Idriss, the defected Syrian general who is head of the opposition’s Supreme Military Council, the group through which the United States and other nations have agreed to route all military and non-lethal assistance.

Still, it remained to be seen if those morale-boosting developments could overcome the deep disarray that engulfed a conference of leaders of Syria’s political opposition, who completed a fifth day of meetings without agreement on a range of issues, including expanded membership and what to do about a proposed peace conference tentatively set for next month. The meeting has run so far beyond its expected length that the luxury hotel where the Syrian Opposition Coalition has been holding its conference demanded that the delegates vacate their rooms for other guests.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry met his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to go over plans for a peace conference on Syria next month in Geneva. Syria announced Sunday that it would send a delegation to the Geneva talks, but spoke of starting a “dialogue” with rebels rather than negotiating a transition to a post-Assad regime, as the U.S. has demanded.

Lavrov told reporters organizing the conference was “a tall order” but said “the chances for success are there.” According to Western diplomats, Russia insists that there be neither agenda nor preconditions for the talks and refuses even to ask the U.N. Security Council to enforce the outcome of the conference.

In his remarks, Kerry said the United States was committed to convening the conference, though there were many details that had yet to be agreed on, among them who should be invited to the conference besides Russia, the United States, the Syrian government and its opposition. Iran has asked that it be invited and Iraq announced on Sunday that it intended to participate. But Kerry indicated that the guest list was still subject to negotiation between the United States and Russia, calling it “an ongoing conversation.”

McCain has publicly advocated arming the Syrian rebels, but he issued no statement after the visit and there was little specific information on where they met, how the senator’s security was assured, or whether the Obama administration had been informed in advance of the visit. Idriss’ headquarters are in the town of Bab al Hawa, just across the border from Reyhanli, Turkey, where two car bombs killed more than 40 people three weeks ago. But it was unknown if that was the location of the meeting. Bab al Hawa has been under the control of rebel groups since last year, but is still the site of occasional Syrian government bombardment, as well as gun battles between rival rebel factions.

A decision by the Syrian opposition on whether to participate in the Geneva talks and under what conditions had been on the agenda of the coalition in its closed door conference that began last Thursday, but that and the formation of a government-in-exile and even the election of new leaders seemed out of reach early Tuesday local time as delegates continued to wrangle over how to expand the coalition’s membership.

Conference participants put the blame on the outside backers of the civil opposition and the military force – Saudi Arabia, the United States, Britain and France – for insisting that the 63-member general assembly be expanded by at least 25 members. The Saudis, who have objected in the past that members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood played too strong a role in exile politics, are said to have pushed hardest for enlarging the group, formally known as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

The coalition came under scathing criticism from inside and outside of Syria Monday. “This has been a total failure,” said Radwan Ziadeh, who runs a Washington think-tank on Syria, referring to the lack of accomplishments after five days of meetings.

An activist in Damascus, who uses the pen name Maan al Hammwi, posted a new “group event” on Facebook, the “Let us all be killed in silence” campaign. “I as a Syrian citizen, call upon the Syrian coalition and all of the political powers to suspend their work immediately,” he said, demanding first an international “decision” on Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons and the involvement of Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces in the ground war.

“If the Syrian coalition does not suspend its work, then I announce that it does not represent me, and it never shall represent me,” he wrote. “Let us die with honor and in silence, without humiliating ourselves,” he added. As of midday Monday, 278 people had signed up for the “event.”

The coalition did vote in the early hours Monday local time to add eight new members, but one of them, Christian dissident Michel Kilo, the principal proponent of a major expansion, was already in the coalition but hadn’t taken up his seat, and a second, women’s rights activist Farah al Atassi, suspended her participation immediately after the vote, criticizing the highly charged process.

The membership issue took up nearly all of Monday, except for some preliminary discussion about the Geneva talks, and the disarray in the organization extended to its public face, with spokesmen unable to brief reporters on the meeting or on the biographies of the new members.

Having achieved none of its program objectives during five full days of discussion, and forced to vacate the hotel, the coalition came up a familiar solution – another two-day extension and a move to another hotel, this one on the outskirts of Istanbul.

Email:; Twitter: @roygutmanmcc

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