Former PM renews call for arming Syrian rebels

 09 Mar 2013 - 3:00


Former Syrian premier Riad Hijab chairs the first official meeting of the Free National Gathering’s general assembly in Doha, yesterday.

DOHA/damscus: Dissident Syrian ex-premier Riad Hijab issued a new call yesterday for the arming of rebels fighting President Bashar Al Assad’s rule after Western governments again opposed sending more than non-lethal aid.

Hijab, whose shock flight to Jordan with his family last August was the highest-profile defection from the Assad regime, said foreign arms shipments were the sole way to tilt the balance in the two-year-old conflict.

“Arming the Free Syrian Army is the only way of changing the situation on the ground and getting out of the hole the tyrant has dragged us into,” he said.

Hijab was speaking in Doha at a meeting of the Free National Gathering, an opposition grouping that he leads and which was founded in Amman in December with the stated intention of defending the interests of state employees sympathetic to the opposition and safeguarding state institutions when Assad falls. Hijab’s comments came after Western governments expressed renewed reluctance to arm the rebels.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned on Thursday that delivering weapons could result in a regional arms race, while US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that the risk remained that any arms supplied could fall into the “wrong hands.”

Meanwhile, rebels, holding 21 UN peacekeepers near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in southern Syria, said yesterday no talks were under way to free the men and gave no indication that they would be released soon.

The men are part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights since 1974. 

Their capture just 1.6km from Israeli-held lines is further evidence of how Syria’s conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over into neighbouring countries. “There are no negotiations between any parties,” said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the “Martyrs of Yarmouk” brigade that captured the Filipino peacekeepers on Wednesday.

In several videos released on Thursday, the peacekeepers said they were being treated well in the village of Jamla by civilians and rebels opposed to President Bashar Al Assad.

The United Nations said the captives had been detained by around 30 rebel fighters, but Taseel said the men were “guests”, not hostages, and were being held for their own safety.

However, he said they would only be released once Assad’s forces retreated from around Jamla and halted bombing there.

“Negotiations should be between (the United Nations) and the regime of Bashar Al Assad to stop the bombing and lift the blockade of the area so it can be safe,” Taseel said.

The Damascus government has not commented publicly about the incident.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had been approached by the Syrian opposition and was prepared to play a role in “receiving” the peacekeepers once they are released, but would not get involved in actual negotiations.

The ICRC was ready “to play the role of neutral intermediary in the framework of the kidnapping of the UNDOF soldiers provided that this is agreeable to all the parties concerned,” ICRC spokeswoman Dibeh Fakhr told Reuters in Geneva.

Taseel said the UN observers had a responsibility to keep heavy weapons out of the area. Under an agreement brokered by the United States in 1974, Israel and Syria are allowed a limited number of tanks and troops within 20km of the disengagement line. Taseel said the Syrian military had exceeded those limits and that its warplanes were bombing opposition targets within 500 metres of the disengagement line.