Geneva conference: Russia put an end to American illusions
By Ghaleb Kandil
U.S. bets to initiate Russian pressure on the Syrian delegation at the Geneva Conference, to bring it to change its principled positions have failed. The disappointment of Washington appeared in the results of the tripartite meeting in Geneva on Friday between Russia, the United States and Lakhdar Brahimi. At this meeting, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Gennady Gatilov, showed great firmness in opposing the Americans and the bias international envoy.
The negotiations in Geneva proves the absence of any compromise already agreed, as some political and diplomatic circles believed at the beginning of the conference. It should be clear to all analysts that the relationship between Russia and the Syrian state is built on a strong partnership and alliance, and not on orders, as is the case in the relationship between the Syrian opposition and their American, Arab and Western masters.
The Syrian crisis is the space in which the partnership between Russians and Americans is being formed. In its efforts to regain its place in the international scene, Russia is based on a solid rock: the resistance provided by the Syrian state, the advance of his troops on the ground and broad popular support that even the worst enemies of Syria can no longer deny.
In its efforts to build this new international partnership, Russia is equal with the West, even if at the beginning of the conference, she closed her eyes to the withdrawal of the invitation to Iran and limiting the representation of the Syrian opposition to the only delegation of the National Coalition. The Russians put an end, Friday, to the U.S. illusions, by fully supporting the position of the Syrian government delegation is uncompromising in priorities: the fight against terrorism must come before any other political issue, because it is the pillar of any future inter-Syrian agreement.
Washington is trying to impose the concept developed by Richard Haass of an international partnership... led by the United States! This is what the Americans are trying in Syria. But this attempt goes against the current balance of power on the ground, which allow the Syrian government, which draws its strength from its army and the support of a large part of the population, to put the world before two alternatives: a compromise built on a partnership in the fight against terrorism, supported by strong international resolutions against all states involved in supporting terrorist movements; or a military solution with the own resources of the Syrian state, which would impose a fait accompli on the field.
Through its information and opinion polls, the West knows that the popularity of President Bashar al- Assad is unwavering. The fact that the Syrian president is the target of the United States has only reinforced his popularity and his image of a Syrian popular leader who resists terrorism and defends the independence and sovereignty of his nation.
Russia wanted to send a strong message of solidarity with Syria, its people and its leader, which has attracted the admiration of the free men of the world with his will to resist.
Moscow’s position was helped by an intelligent and courageous management of the negotiations in Geneva by the government delegation. It is no coincidence that demonstrations in support of President Assad, the government delegation in Geneva and the Syrian Arab army, took place in troubled regions of Syria. Images of crowds in Daraa, Deir Ezzor and other cities are eloquent.
Russia is convinced that she is the target of terrorism and takfirists, sponsored by countries moving into the U.S. orbit. It is also subjected to pressure in Ukraine and other regions, which constitute its area of historical influence. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stood up before the American arrogance and against the anti-missile shield, which is a direct threat to the global equilibrium. This project is explicitly directed against Russia and its Iranian ally.
This means that the priority of the Syrian government to combat terrorism means also to defend Syria, the security of its allies and world stability. It is quite natural that the position of Russia in the Geneva conference to support this priority, especially that the Syrian government has taken into account the last three years, and more than one times, the interests of his Russian ally.
The relationship between Russia and Syria is built on an organic and strategic alliance based on credibility, understanding and mutual respect. Syria is a key partner for Russia and not a vassal, as the relationship between the United States and its "allies."
For all these reasons, the illusion of a Russian-American compromise agreed in advance fell Friday in Geneva ... evaporated with the U.S. plans to give priority to the "transfer of power" on the fight against terrorism.
The Syrian Arab army will make sure on the battlefield, to convince those who are still lulled by these illusions.
HASSAN NASRALLAH, Hezbollah Secretary general
«Hezbollah and the Amal Movement opened the door for this national achievement. Hezbollah made the most sacrifices in this cabinet. I do not consider this cabinet an all-encompassing cabinet because there are significant parties that were not represented in it… It is a ‘settlement’ or a ‘national interest’ government. Hezbollah will win the battle against the takfirists in Syria, and that the Resistance’s weapons and techniques are being developed to be ready for bigger confrontations. We will be victorious in this battle. It is a matter of time. Takfiri terrorism is a threat to the entire region, It is present in all the countries of the region and all religions and sects are under their threat. Why don’t we have the right to be worried of those rebel groups if other countries are worried about their residents fighting with them? If these armed groups took control of Syria and the Lebanese border towns, we would have a war on all fronts. If these groups triumph, will the Future Movement have a future in Lebanon? This threat faces the entirety of the country. Some parties in Lebanon said that the suicide bombings wouldn’t have taken place if it weren’t for Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, but before our participation in the war, such operations were also taking place. Our intervention was not the reason for these operations. These Takfiri groups had Lebanon as a target. They were coming sooner or later. It was a matter of time. We protected the Lebanese in Qusayr from being killed and raped. Is that not worth us bearing the repercussions? Israel and the United States are using extremists to have them carry out suicide bombings in Lebanon. Israel has been taking advantage of the situation in Lebanon to wage a psychological war against the Resistance.»
TAMMAM SALAM, Lebanese Prime minister
«I stretch my hand to all political leaders and I count on their wisdom to reach this end. I call on all of them to concede to serve the project of the state and to support the army and the security forces and keep them away from political bickering. The cabinet will work on holding presidential elections and agreeing on a new law for parliamentary elections.»
MICHEL AOUN, Free Patriotic Movement Leader
«We hope that the new government will help normalize relations between the different sections of Lebanese society. We hope that everything will return to its place and that the institutions will return to their work. We hope that institutions will] flourish and bear good fruits, from security to economics and finance, and that the government will rise again being in a state of collapse.»
SAAD HARIRI, Future Movement leader
«The time of justice is the time of moderation and the people of justice are the people of moderation. We are the people of moderation and we reject extremism. We will be victorious through work, education, the state, justice and moderation. The five suspects in the killing of Rafiq Hariri are overtly under the protection of an armed party and the state is unable to even inquire about them. To those who wage accusations concerning the existence of a welcoming environment for terrorism in Lebanon and attempt to put the blame on the Future Movement and the Sunni-dominated towns we say: ‘Your illusions are rejected’. Our only plan is the state and we reject vacuum in the presidency because we come from a school that considers the Maronite Christian president a symbol of coexistence between Muslims and Christians, which, for us, is a fundamental basis of Lebanon. Future rejects vacuum in the only Christian presidency among countries that lay between India and the shores of Morocco.»
FARES BOUEIZ, Former Lebanese Foreign Ministry
«Israel is closely following the issue of the supply of arms by France to the Lebanese Army. Israelis are certainly occurred through the United States and directly from French, to ensure that the military does not get sophisticated weapons.»
FADI KARAM, Lebanese Forces MP
«With our respect for the new ministers, some of whom we have friendships with, we will be defining our position on the political identity of the cabinet based on the ministerial statement not the names of the ministers or the portfolios. Today we are waiting for the ministerial statement and the policy that will be adopted in order to decide in light of that policy how to deal with the new government.»
SERGEI LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister
«Russia has the impression that, in persuading Syria’s external opposition to join the Geneva II conference, its sponsors had only the replacement of the regime in mind. They are prepared to discuss other issues, in the first place, the fight against terrorism, only after the creation of a transitional body, because ’in the field’ government troops are confronted with the armed opposition. When the Russian-American initiative was announced, it was said clearly that these negotiations should not have any artificially set time parameters, or any artificial deadlines.»
• The Lebanese Army defused an explosives-rigged car in east Lebanon Sunday, according to a statement from the military. The Army began chasing the suspected vehicle, a Toyota RAV 4 around 11:15 a.m. on the outskirts of the Baalbeck town of Ham. Soldiers managed to capture the car after opening fire at it, but the driver escaped. A military expert was then called to scene to investigate. After ascertaining that the car was rigged to explode, the expert disarmed the bomb, the statement said. Military Prosecutor Judge Saqr Saqr ordered Army Intelligence to transfer the car to its headquarters and launch preliminary investigations. The National News Agency reported that the car entered Lebanon from the Syrian province of Qalamoun, near the Lebanese border, and that it was heading towards Beirut when it was stopped. Media reports said that over 250 kilograms of explosives were found in the car, in addition to fuses. This past week, military experts defused another car bomb vehicle in Beirut’s Corniche al-Mazraa neighborhood following the confessions of a leading figure in the Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades. The Army also seized another explosive-laden vehicle in the Bekaa region on the same day.
• Speaker Nabih Berry called on Gulf states to remove travel warnings for Lebanon as he held talks with Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah Sunday. “I hope efforts are made to lift the travel ban to Lebanon for our brothers in the Gulf,” Berri said during his talks with the Kuwaiti Emir. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have repeatedly renewed their advisories warning Gulf citizens against traveling to Lebanon due to the frail security situation. Berri, who is currently in Koweit for a two-day visit as part of his tour of the Gulf, hailed the “ongoing initiatives” by Kuwait to support Lebanon. He also called for strengthened unity among Muslims. Berri expressed hope the Emir would work for a rapprochement between Iran and the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, adding that such a breakthrough would have a positive impact on the entire region. Berri also discussed the conditions of the Syrian and Palestinian refugees on Lebanese territories with the Kuwaiti Emir and Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah For his part, the Kuwaiti Emir said his country would do everything in its power to "assist and support Lebanon in various fields.”
• Jordanian Islamist cleric Abu Qatada, on trial for terrorism, said he supports a string of Al-Qaeda-linked bombings against the powerful Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah because it backs the Syrian government. "I support the bombings in Beirut. The leader of Hezbollah sent fighters to Syria to back the regime. He is responsible for those killed in Lebanon," Abu Qatada told reporters at the state security court in Amman. "If Lebanon wants to protect itself, it should tell the party of the devil to get its fighters out of Syria," he added in a swipe at Hezbollah. They have been claimed by various jihadist groups, some of them linked to organizations fighting in neighboring Syria, including Al-Nusra Front in Lebanon, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
AS SAFIR (LEBANESE DAILY, ARAB NATIONALIST)
(FEBRUARY 13, 2014)
Fourteen vehicles 4x4 entered Ersal from Syria, the 8th of this month, with on board Lebanese and Gulf nationals, with weapons, ammunition and money. Tuesday at dawn, the passengers of these vehicles went aboard minibus, after receiving falsified identity documents to facilitate their movements. The minibus took the following directions: toward northern Lebanon, two to Beirut and to the central Bekaa. Among Gulf nationals members of these groups were identified the following persons: Abdel Rahman A., Ibrahim Ghodbane, Majed Fadel, Abdel Malek A., and Assem Fahd.
Security sources said that the aim of these groups is to commit bombings and assassinations, under the direction of an individual nicknamed al-Sarih (fast) before they leave for Turkey.
AN NAHAR (LEBANESE DAILY, CLOSE TO MARCH-14 COALITION)
ROSANNA BOU MOUNCEF (FEBRUARY 14, 2014)
There are no similarities between the summit of Presidents Barack Obama and François Hollande and the Normandy meeting between presidents Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush in June 2004. At the time, Lebanon was on the brink of a presidential election but Syrian President Bashar al- Assad had taken the decision to extend the term of President Emile Lahoud, which earned him the adoption of Resolution 1559 by the Council of UN Security. Today, however, the Presidential election this year is tied to the fate of Assad. The circumstances are different, as the method of two heads of state, their interest in Lebanon, and their ability to release the Lebanese presidential elections of the various pressures. Indeed, every day, there is an inability to dissociate the situation in Lebanon from the crisis in Syria. Consequently, Lebanon is doomed to wait. He is asked now to preserve its stability. Efforts focus on everything that is likely to achieve this goal, such as support for the Lebanese army and assistance to Syrian refugees. This is why President Hollande has raised Lebanon issue by two or three sentences on these objectives during the joint press conference with Obama. Franco-American concerns go beyond the two countries fear indeed that Lebanon lacks the electoral event.
AL AKHBAR (LEBANESE DAILY CLOSE TO THE LEBANESE RESISTANCE)
(FEBRUARY 13, 2014)
A few days ago, sources with links to takfiri groups operating in the Qalamoun region in Syria leaked information that major operations are being planned against Hezbollah in the coming few days. Security agencies circulated information about a plot involving suicide bombers and members of al-Qaeda that was meant to target Dahiyeh - Beirut’s southern suburb - in the coming three days. The plot’s climactic event was meant to take place during the speech delivered by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah Sunday afternoon to commemorate the anniversary of the martyred leaders of the Islamic resistance.
Although the security agencies pursuing these groups were already on high alert last week, sensitive information about the imminence of the plot’s execution prompted strict monitoring operations which allowed them to determine that the whereabouts of Naim Abbas, a leading figure in the operation, was in Tariq al-Jdideh on a street that connects the neighborhood to the Corniche al-Mazraa area. In a morning raid that took place at 6:30 am, Abbas was found with another person, a Lebanese national, who confessed during investigations that he is a suicide bomber receiving instructions from Abbas to set off a car bomb in Dahiyeh yesterday.
This security operation was part of a plan that covered many Lebanese regions from the northern Bekaa to Beirut, the coastal region of the Chouf, and the outskirts of the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Saida. It included additional measures taken at the junction between Tariq al-Jdideh and the Chatila roundabout that leads to Dahiyeh. It became evident that the whole area was on high alert in the past 24 hours and there is talk of a car bomb delivered to a suicide bomber that has not been found.
The expression “big catch” is often used to underscore the importance of a person arrested by a security agency but it is hard to find someone to whom this description would apply more aptly than Naim Abbas.
The leading figure in al-Qaeda in Lebanon was arrested by the army’s intelligence directorate yesterday. He has a treasure trove of information that would require a lot of time to extract. More importantly, arresting him gave immediate results. His arrest, and subsequent confession, prevented a series of bombings and rockets planned to target civilians in Dahiyeh.
It is a huge achievement for the army and its intelligence directorate which carried out the operation covertly yesterday after taking every possible measure to protect the life of this “big catch.” Abbas is so dangerous that security officials who have monitored fundamentalist movements in Lebanon for more than 15 years could not believe at first that he would risk his life moving around Beirut and Dahiyeh.
But Abbas is truly in custody and before long he began to confess to what he knows. From the first moment of his arrest, he was in a state of shock that led to his collapse according to security sources. He was faced with voice recordings and evidence that accelerated his confession under investigation. He confessed to investigators about the bombings in Dahiyeh in the past weeks, that he was in charge of choosing the target, receiving the booby-trapped car, the suicide bomber, determining the road he would take, and driving him to the outskirts of Dahiyeh. For example, Abbas gave the suicide bomber, Qutaiba al-Sattam, the car near Spinneys supermarket in the Wata al-Mousaitbeh neighborhood. He pointed out that the Choueifat bomber is the only one he chose, recruited, and prepared his operation from A to Z.
He did not only tell investigators about previous operations but about future ones as well. The car that the army found yesterday in Corniche al-Mazraa was prepared to go off yesterday in Dahiyeh. The army also arrested, according to security sources, the suicide bomber (known by the initials M.M,. from North Lebanon carrying a fake ID under the name of a young man from the town of Taalabaya in the Bekaa) who was supposed to drive it.
Just as important as thwarting the car bombs, is foiling a plan to strike Dahiyeh with rockets from the hills overlooking the area. Abbas intended to carry out the operation on Sunday to coincide with Nasrallah’s speech and a number rockets that were supposed to be used were found in the nearby Chouf towns of al-Saadiyat and al-Dibbiyeh.
AL AKHBAR (FEBRUARY 12, 2014)
RACHA ABI HAIDAR
The sheer devastation is enough for one to imagine what kind of battles have been taking place in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. There are no signs of life at the camp, except for the fighters of the Palestinian factions, who have filled the void left behind by the camp’s fleeing residents. In the opinion of the Palestinian fighters, the optimistic view that the crisis in the camp is over is rather exaggerated. To them, all talk about the neutrality of the camp in the armed conflict is just “empty words.”
The traffic was thick on that sunny Damascus day, made worse by the checkpoints on both sides of the southern ring road leading to the Tadamun intersection and Batikha Square beyond it. Life appears normal, until one reaches the Yarmouk refugee camp.
We passed through two checkpoints manned by Fatah al-Intifada, a pro-regime Palestinian faction. A few meters later, we reached the neighborhood where Rawdat Zahrat al-Joulan, a school, is located. There are no students there, just fighters with their gear.
There are clear traces of shelling on the main gate of the school. A mortar has been deployed in the playground, but it has been “out of service” for a while, to make room for negotiations for a deal in the camp. Colonel Abu Iyyad from Fatah al-Intifada came out to greet us, along with a group of soldiers in fatigues, including several who were donning black uniforms with badges that had the word “counterterrorism” written on them.
The walls are covered with Palestinian and Syrian flags, and portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Abu Iyyad explained the details of the agreement reached by the 14 Palestinian factions in the camp.
One of the demands, he said, was for al-Nusra Front and the Ibn Taymiyya Brigade to withdraw, which is indeed what happened on Tuesday, with the two groups withdrawing in the direction of Yalda. Abu Iyyad said, “Our decision is to retake the camp from the militants. We have made progress on the ground, causing confusion and divisions in their ranks.”
No doubt, the fighting here was very fierce over the last few months. The destruction all around, which becomes more pronounced as one goes deeper into the camp, bears witness to this.
At long last, an agreement was reached. Within four days the roads will be opened and all Palestinian factions will meet at Regie Square, the most important point in the center of the camp. The next step, according to Abu Iyyad, “if the initiative succeeds and we establish that outside militants have left the camp,” would be “for the rest of the militants, and us after them, to withdraw to al-Hajar al-Aswad.”
The Fatah al-Intifada colonel is optimistic. He said, “Within a month, life will be once again normal here, and the displaced persons would be able to return to their homes.” What about the devastation to the buildings and infrastructure caused by the fighting? Abu Iyyad said, “The destruction is at about 20 percent but the rest of the camp is intact. The municipality of Yarmouk will cooperate with the government to rebuild the camp.”
But it’s not just about damaged buildings or infrastructure. The humanitarian situation here is very dire, and the civilians have had to cope with incredibly difficult conditions. But Abu Iyyad stressed that the reports about the number of people who died of hunger were “grossly exaggerated.” He said, “We are of this people; others are just exploiting our blood,” adding, “They betrayed the Palestinian cause before they betrayed Syria.”
What about Hamas’s role in all what is happening, and its alleged ties to armed groups that took part in the fighting? Abu Iyyad says that “Hamas played a positive role with the factions that were working on finding a solution,” and denied that “Hamas members were fighting with the Ibn Taymiyya Brigade.”
He said that Hamas had links to the group called Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, but stopped short of confirming whether or not it had anything to do with events in the camp. However, one pro-regime fighter was not as reserved as Abu Iyyad, and declared without equivocation, “Even if Hamas did not participate officially, everyone knows they are fighting here.”
To get to the police station in the nearby Palestine Camp on foot, one has to cross “improvised” paths that the fighters had cleared between homes and buildings. There was no choice but to remain clear of the main road, because the risk of sniper fire still exists. Even ambulances have to take a different route to reach their patients.
Here too, there are no signs of life or civilians, only fighters and some reporters. Everyone has stuck to the buffer zone between Yarmouk Camp/al-Thalatheen Street, and the Palestine Camp.
Commander “Jeddo,” a 73-year-old man originally from Haifa, Palestine, and the “godfather” of the fighters here, is not optimistic at all. The same goes for his bodyguard and comrade Abu Salah.
“What happened is a truce, not a settlement,” he said. He added, “The Palestine camp and the Yarmouk camp are one and the same. Therefore, withdrawing from one but not the other is a ploy!” Jeddo says sharply, to the approval of those around him.
AL RAÏ (KUWAITI DAILY, FEBRUARY 12, 2014)
Hezbollah discovered, last month, a takfirist cell that was planning for murder of senior party leaders. Informed sources said that the security service of Hezbollah asked party officials to take precautions and to increase the alert level. These sources indicate that this cell is linked to a regional state and has no link with other groups who commit suicide bombings.
Observers note a harmony between the mission of the cell responsible for assassinations and Israeli objectives, without necessarily a link between the two parties, at least in Lebanon itself. The above sources indicate that this network hasn’t managed to commit any operation so far, and was discovered by an electronic monitoring and work on the ground.
AL JOUMHOURIA (LEBANESE DAILY CLOSE TO MARCH-14 COALITION)
(FEBRUARY 12, 2014)
The Lebanese Armed Forces are pursuing several suspected terrorists in South Lebanon, the Beqaa, and Beirut’s Dahiyeh. Dozens of young men who belonged to Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir’s inner circle in Sidon and the Ain al-Helwe Palestinian Refugee Camp have been at large since the latest clashes in Abra,” security sources said. The army intelligence is pursuing men of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian nationality.
The sources also stated that the Syrian warplanes had attacked Al-Nusra Front members in the Beqaa Valley and targeted one their vehicles in Wadi al-Kheil, near Younine, and in Wadi Ajram, near Arsal.
Syria’s air force launched four strikes on the outskirts of Lebanon’s frontier town of Arsal on Monday, causing no casualties, according to a Lebanese security source.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (AMERICAN DAILY, FEBRUARY 14, 2014)
MARIA ABI HABIB AND STACY MEICHTRY
Washington’s Arab allies, disappointed with Syria peace talks, have agreed to provide rebels there with more sophisticated weaponry, including shoulder-fired missiles that can take down jets, according to Western and Arab diplomats and opposition figures.
Saudi Arabia has offered to give the opposition for the first time Chinese man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads, and antitank guided missiles from Russia, according to an Arab diplomat and several opposition figures with knowledge of the efforts. Saudi officials couldn’t be reached to comment.
The U.S. has long opposed arming rebels with antiaircraft missiles for fear they could fall into the hands of extremists who might use them against the West or commercial airlines. The Saudis have held off supplying them in the past because of U.S. opposition. A senior Obama administration official said Friday that the U.S. objection remains the same. "There hasn’t been a change internally on our view," the official said.
The U.S. for its part has stepped up financial support, handing over millions of dollars in new aid to pay fighters’ salaries, said rebel commanders who received some of the money. The U.S. wouldn’t comment on any payments.
he focus of the new rebel military push is to retake the southern suburbs of Damascus in hopes of forcing the regime to accept a political resolution to the war by agreeing to a transitional government without President Bashar al-Assad.
But if the Manpads are supplied in the quantities needed, rebels said it could tip the balance in the stalemated war in favor of the opposition. The antiaircraft and Russian Konkurs antitank weapons would help them chip away at the regime’s two big advantages on the battlefield—air power and heavy armor.
"New stuff is arriving imminently," said a Western diplomat with knowledge of the weapons deliveries.
Rebel commanders and leaders of the Syrian political opposition said they don’t know yet how many of the Manpads and antiaircraft missiles they will get. But they have been told it is a significant amount. The weapons are already waiting in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey.
Earlier in the conflict, rebels managed to seize a limited number of Manpads from regime forces. But they quickly ran out of the missiles to arm them, the Western diplomat said.
Rebel leaders say they met with U.S. and Saudi intelligence agents, among others, in Jordan on Jan. 30 as the first round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva came to a close. That is when wealthy Gulf States offered the more sophisticated weapons.
At the meeting, U.S. and Gulf officials said they were disappointed with the Syrian government’s refusal to discuss Mr. Assad’s ouster at the talks and suggested a military push was needed to force a political solution to the three-year war.
President Barak Obama this week acknowledged that diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict are far from achieving their goals. "But the situation is fluid and we are continuing to explore every possible avenue," Mr. Obama said.
The weapons will flow across the border into southern Syria from the warehouses in Jordan and across the northern border from Turkey, the Western diplomat said. Rebel leaders said the shipments to southern Syria are expected to be more substantial because opposition fighters are more unified in that area and there is a lower risk the weapons will fall into the hands of al Qaeda-inspired groups—a big concern for the U.S.
With the rebels still deeply divided and infighting growing, the new aid is aimed squarely at the more moderate and secular rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that the U.S. has always favored.
The plan coincides with the reorganization of rebel forces in the south, where 10,000 fighters have formed the Southern Front. The new front aims to break the government’s siege of the southern suburbs of Damascus.
Last month, rebels in the north unified into the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, turning their weapons on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most deadly al Qaeda-inspired rebel faction. The SRF, along with other groups, forced ISIS to retreat from key territories across the north. Both the northern and southern forces are technically under the FSA’s umbrella.
Western and Arab support for the new groups won’t go to the Islamic Front, an alliance of conservative, religious rebel factions that is helping the northern front rebels fight the more radical ISIS.
The Southern Front is under the leadership of Bashar al-Zoubi, who has a direct line to Western and Arab intelligence agencies in a military operations room in Amman, rebels say.
The operations room hosts officials from the 11 countries that form the Friends of Syria group, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia, France and the U.K. Mr. al-Zoubi was also among a select group of rebel commanders who joined the political opposition in Geneva for the latest round of peace talks.
The Southern Front has captured a string of government-held areas and military bases since it launched its first offensive in late January.
But any push toward the capital from the south faces formidable challenges. An arc south of the capital is the domain of the army’s Fourth Division, elite troops led by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. Closer to the capital, Syrian forces are fortified by elements of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia from Lebanon.
The regime has been ruthless in snuffing out any hint of escalation by rebels in the south.
"The Saudis and Emiratis at the same meeting said that their priority is to lift the siege on the entire southern area of Damascus," said an aide to a rebel leader who attended the meeting in Amman on Jan 30. Once we reach this stage, it will become political pressure and Assad will have to listen to the international demands," the aide said.
At the meeting between leaders of the Southern Front and Western and Arab intelligence agencies last month, rebel leaders said they were given salaries for their fighters and equipment such as military rations and tents.
Rebels said the U.S. spent $3 million on salaries of fighters in the Southern Front, delivering the payments in cash over two meetings in Jordan—one on Jan. 30 and the other late last year.
The opposition will also ask Congress next week for weapons to help rebels fight al Qaeda. That mandate would give the opposition a better shot at securing arms than previous requests for support to topple the regime.
Congressional aides confirmed there are scheduled meetings with opposition leaders next week to discuss their request for more advanced weapons. But Congress remains sharply divided about the conflict in Syria. Some lawmakers favor stepped-up support to moderate opposition groups, but others question the wisdom of providing heavy weapons.
"We’re trying to assure the international community that they can support moderates without the threat of arms falling into the hands of al Qaeda," said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian opposition.
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