Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Syrian rebels say US increasing aid to pressure Assad

BEIRUT, AMMAN // The United States has increased direct funding to rebel groups fighting in Damascus and southern Syria, ramping up pressure on president Bashar Al Assad after negotiations in Geneva ended in deadlock.
Last week, as the Syrian regime delegation in Switzerland vowed there would be “no concessions” to the opposition, US officials were handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars to Syrian rebel commanders in Jordan, according to opposition fighters.
“From now until the next round of talks in Geneva, Assad will be under real pressure — he will feel more pressure from opposition forces,” a rebel field commander cited a US official as saying.
The injection of funding from Washington comes on top of a major push by Arabian Gulf states to finance rebel operations in the southern region of Syria, including the war to control the capital, Damascus.
More than US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) has been paid out since the summer, much of it for weapons purchases in Eastern Europe, according to sources connected with Gulf governments, which are bankrolling the effort.
On Saturday, less than 48 hours after getting the funds from US officials, rebels launched a new military campaign called Geneva Horan, involving 68 rebel units in southern Syria.
Horan is the name of fertile plains near the Jordanian border and the frontier with Israel, the broad area in which Syria’s uprising began as peaceful protests in March 2011, before descending into civil war.
The latest round of negotiations, known as Geneva 2, finished on January 31, with UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, the opposition and regime delegations, and their respective backers in the US and Russia, all admitting there had been no concrete progress.
Further talks have been tentatively scheduled to start in Geneva on February 10, although Mr Al Assad has yet to commit to the meeting.
While hopes for a breakthrough at Geneva 2 had been minimal, the complete lack of movement, particularly on gaining access for humanitarian aid to areas besieged by regime forces, left US and Gulf officials little choice but to boost support for rebels, Syrian opposition members who met foreign officials, said.
A rebel commander said one Saudi official involved in procuring the weapons told him: “If the sieges are not lifted by the regime, we will have to break them.”
In the run up to last month’s Geneva talks, Russia reportedly increased supplies of military hardware to Mr Al Assad, bolstering his position on the ground. Moscow and Tehran have been unequivocal supporters of the Syrian regime, in what has become a proxy war, pitting them against Gulf states, and a much less committed US and Europe.
US officials have also expressed their frustration at the slow progress of Syria’s hand over of chemical weapons, something Mr Al Assad agreed to in September, to avoid US air strikes following poison gas attacks on rebel-held neighbourhoods to the east and south of Damascus.
Gulf states have rushed in weapon supplies and ammunition to units fighting in the Geneva Horan offensive, according to rebels. No US-made weapons have been supplied but, rebels said, US and Gulf officials told them they would start to receive high-quality weaponry over the next two weeks.
Rebels in southern Syria, including Deraa, Damascus and the countryside around the capital, say the US official told them last week that funding from Washington had been assured for nine months.
That time frame largely coincides with details of closed-door congressional approval for funding to Syria’s armed opposition until September, reported by Reuters last month.
Exactly how much money Washington plans to give rebel forces as part of a renewed injection of resources is unclear. According to numbers given by rebel commanders, the figure could be at least $31.5m for the southern area — excluding money for weapons and other supplies

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