Russia and Iran must stop enabling Syrian government remain in power, warns Kerry
US secretary of state urges Russia to cease distributing weapons and aid
New recruits attend a military training to be part of the Free Syrian Army in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus. Photograph: Reuters
Recruits train to be part of the Free Syrian Army in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus. Photograph: Ammar al-Bushy/Reuters
US secretary of state John Kerry yesterday castigated Russia and Iran for boosting support for the Syrian government, enabling it to stay in power and stonewall the Geneva peace talks, as the US and Saudi Arabia began to reorganise and provide advanced weapons to the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Mr Kerry said that “Russia needs to be a part of the solution” instead of distributing more weapons and aid and “that they’re in fact enabling [Syrian president Bashar al-Assad] to double-down. Which is . . . an enormous problem.”
He accused Moscow of failing to “create the dynamic” to achieve the formation of a transitional body in Syria, an effort Russia has criticised as “regime change”.
His remarks followed an announcement by president Barack Obama that he is considering a “wide range of policy tools and options” for increasing pressure on Dr Assad to halt military action against insurgents and civilians while working for a political solution.
Obama’s comment coincided with the sacking of Brig Gen Selim Idriss, chief-of-staff of the Free Army’s supreme military council, and his replacement by Col Abdelillah al-Bashir, field commander of units deployed in the Kuneitra governorate bordering the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. Col Bashir is the fourth Syrian army defector to head the Free Army, established by Turkey in July 2011.
His appointment came after the merging of southern brigades into the Southern Front under Bashar al-Zoubi and of 14 “brigages” in the north into the Revolutionaries Front, headed by Jamal Maarouf, which has taken on al-Qaeda renegade Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis).
Linked to the western- and Gulf Arab-sponsored expatriate opposition National Coalition, the Revolutionaries Front supports the Geneva talks and sent representatives, including Mr Zoubi, to the second round that ended without result on Saturday.
A loosely linked collection of largely local militias, the Free Army has, over the past year, been sidelined by better armed and better paid fundamentalist rebels and radical jihadis. The US Central Intelligence Agency and Saudi Arabia – which have been training Free Army units in Jordan – are set to deliver quantities of Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles (Manpads) and Russian Konkurs anti-tank weapons as well as funds. According to the Washington Post , the weapons are in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey, ready to be deployed in Syria.
The US-Saudi Arabia seek to reverse the tide of battle, which has been flowing in the regime’s favour since the re-conquest of the insurgent- held town of Qusair last June.
The Southern Front has been given the task of exerting pressure on the southern approaches to Damascus while the Revolutionaries Front is expected to drive Isis from territory it holds in the north. In this campaign, the Front has been reinforced by al-Qaeda’s official Syrian franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra, which has turned against its parent organisation, Isis, but could be next to be targeted by the Revolutionaries Front.
It is unlikely that reorganising, training and arming the Free Army will lead to the overthrow of the government or compel it to make concessions. Instead, the military stalemate could become even more deadly and destructive.
The number of fighters in anti-government forces is said to be 75-110,000, of whom 27,000-40,000 may be in the Free Army and 45,000 in the Islamic Front; 26,000 are extremists, including 7,000 foreign fighters from 50 countries. These are rough numbers since fighters shift from group to group depending on commanders, arms and pay.
The Syrian armed forces’ strength is given as 228,000 active soldiers – largely conscripts – bolstered by 100,000 in the locally-based volunteer national defence force formed during the conflict, 10,000 shabiha militia, 2,000 fighters from the Lebanese Hizbollah and 10,000 Shia fighters from Syria and Iraq.