Syrian Opposition Pushes for Drones, Weapons as Allies Meet

The Syrian opposition urged the U.S. and allies to use drones against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, provide weapons to opposition fighters, and create a protected “no-fly zone” airspace within Syria at a meeting of allies in Istanbul yesterday.

The demands reflected opposition frustration with the failure of the U.S. and its allies to provide the intelligence and equipment they say is necessary to defend themselves from the regime’s continued attacks.

“The technical ability to take specific action to prevent the human tragedy and suffering of innocent civilians, mostly women and children, is available in the form of specific intelligence and equipment,” the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces said in a statement. “Syrians understand that such ability is within the reach of a number of members of the Friends of Syria Group, yet nothing serious has been done to put an end to such terror and criminality.”

Another 125 men, woman and children died across the country yesterday, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a London-based human rights group, adding to the toll of more than 75,000 killed since the conflict began in March 2011. More than 1.3 million Syrians have flooded into Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, destabilizing the region, and 4.25 million more are internally displaced, according to the UN.

Non-Lethal Aid

The opposition statement, along with difficult discussions that pushed the ‘Friends’ meeting hours over schedule, reflected impatience with the non-lethal military aid announced at yesterday’s gathering, according to a State Department official who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.

Following conversations with Syrian opposition leader Moaz Al-Khatib yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. will double its non-lethal assistance to the Assad opposition.

The new $123 million in aid “underscores the United States’ firm support for a political solution to the crisis in Syria and for the opposition’s advancement of an inclusive, tolerant vision” for a post-Assad Syria, according to the announcement. Kerry also announced about $25 million in additional food assistance for Syrians.

Last Resort

U.S. administration officials have made clear in recent days that they see military assistance to the Syrian opposition as an “option of last resort,” as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told lawmakers at a Senate Armed Services hearing April 17. Active military intervention could interfere with humanitarian efforts, strain alliances and suck the U.S. into a broader regional conflict, he said.

Kerry met briefly with Al-Khatib upon arrival in Istanbul yesterday and then saw him again with the full contingent of foreign ministers from the ‘Friends’ countries, which include the U.K., France, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

At the larger meeting, Al-Khatib presented the opposition’s demands, asking the international group to work toward passage of a United Nations Resolution condemning Syria for the use of ballistic and chemical weapons against civilians. They urged the use of “surgical strikes” by “unmanned aerial vehicles” to stop the Assad regime from using such weapons.

Congressional Demands

The opposition also asked for the creation of an international fund to support its coalition and efforts to organize politically. And they called for a protected airspace - - a demand that the administration is also hearing from members of Congress, including Michigan Democrat Senator Carl Levin, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Other lawmakers urging the administration to take greater action include New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, the Democrat who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Representative Ed Royce, the California Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Royce has prepared bipartisan legislation calling for the U.S. to arm Syrian rebels, while Levin and others have urged President Barack Obama to support the creation of safe zones along the Turkish border with Syria and the deployment of Patriot missile batteries to “neutralize” Syrian planes.

“We must do more to tip the balance in favor of the Syrian opposition,” Royce said on April 17.

Extremist Groups

Administration officials told lawmakers in April 17 testimony that their lack of understanding about the composition of rebel military forces complicates their ability to provide military aid. The growth of extremist groups in Syria to fight Assad, such as the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, is also cause for concern as the U.S. wants to prevent these groups from obtaining arms.

Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, in distinguishing moderate rebel military groups from radicals, it’s “actually more confusing on the opposition side today than it was six months ago.”

Assad’s opposition has also been hamstrung by infighting, policy differences and personal rivalries, reducing their ability to provide a viable alternative to the regime, Kerry told the House Foreign Relations Committee the same day.

“We’re trying to get everybody on the same page,” Kerry told the panel.

U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are already providing arms to Syrian fighters. France and the U.K. are pushing the EU to lift its embargo against sending arms to Syria so that they could provide military equipment to opposition fighters. Russia and Iran continue to send arms to the Syrian regime, U.S. officials such as Dempsey say.

Tomorrow, Kerry will hold meetings with Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Kerry will then fly to Brussels for a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization foreign ministers. He will also see Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who will be there for a NATO-Russia meeting.

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