US Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that Syria’s moderate opposition could play a role in fighting against and pushing back jihadists who have seized swathe of territory in neighbouring Iraq.
Kerry was speaking in Saudi Arabia, where he met Western-backed Syrian National Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba.
‘The moderate opposition in Syria . . . has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) ISIL’s presence . . . not just in Syria, but also in Iraq.
‘Jarba represents a tribe that reaches right into Iraq. He knows people there, and his point of view and that of the Syrian opposition will be very important going forward,’ said Kerry, adding that ‘we are also in a moment of increased effort with the opposition.’
ISIL jihadists, who have been part of ongoing fighting between the Syrian army and a number of Sunni factions factions, have been emboldened in their territorial ambitions and seized chunks of neighbouring Iraq.
In what would be the biggest boost yet by US President Barack Obama’s administration to Syria’s rebels in the three-year conflict, the White House has asked US lawmakers to release $500 million to train and equip the moderate opposition led by Jarba.
The assistance would go to what the White House has called ‘appropriately vetted’ members of the Syrian opposition.
Although the US has provided some $2 billion in humanitarian aid, Obama has so far shied clear of providing heavy weapons, fearful they could fall into the hands of jihadists on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
Jarba called for ‘greater assistance’ from the United States to Syria’s mostly-Sunni rebels and for ‘greater efforts on the part of the US and regional powers to address the situation in Iraq.’
Kerry was also to meet Saudi King Abdullah, who has long called for greater US military support for the Syrian rebels, whom the Sunni kingdom has long backed.
He has also been an outspoken critic of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose Shiite-led government has seen insurgents sweep up a huge swathe of territory, including the second city Mosul, since June 9.
Riyadh accuses Maliki of excluding Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority and has played down Western concerns that the insurgents are led by jihadists.
Maliki has hit back, accusing both Saudi Arabia and its neighbour Qatar of supporting terrorism.
Iraq has received the first batch of Sukhoi ground attack warplanes from Russia as it pressed a counter-attack on Sunday against a Sunni militant onslaught that threatens to tear the country apart.
Witnesses reported waves of government air strikes on Sunday on the city of Tikrit, overrun by the insurgents when they swept across vast areas of north and west Iraq earlier this month. However latest reports suggest that Maliki’s forces have been unable to retake the city.
Meanwhile imperialist leaders, alarmed by the pace of the reverses in Iraq, have urged a speeding up of government formation following April’s general election, warning that the conflict, driven by sectarian divides, cannot be resolved militarily.
The newly-purchased Su-25 aircraft are expected to be pressed into service as soon as possible, bolstering Iraq’s air power as it combats the insurgency that has killed more than 1,000 people and sparked a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands displaced.
An Iraqi official said that pilots from Saddam Hussein’s air force, who were used to flying Russian planes, would fly the ground attack aircraft.
Su-25s are designed for ground attack, meaning they will be useful for Iraqi forces trying to root out militants, led by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and also different factions of Baathists from a string of towns and cities they have seized.
While Washington has begun sending military advisers to help Iraqi commanders and is flying armed drones over Baghdad, Iraqi officials have voiced frustration that multi-billion dollar deals for US-made F-16s and Apache helicopters have not been expedited.
Iraqi forces have for days been pressing a campaign to retake Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, which fell to the militants on June 11.
On Sunday, Iraqi aircraft carried out strikes in various areas in central Tikrit, and Saddam’s palace compound in the city, witnesses said, a clear sign that militants are still holed up in the city.
Thousands of soldiers, backed by tanks and bomb disposal units, have been engaged in the major operation aimed at retaking the city. According to Maliki’s security spokesman, Iraqi forces are coordinating with US advisers in ‘studying important targets.’
Also Sunday, fighters backed by the Kurdish peshmerga force were advancing on the Shiite-majority village of Basheer, south of Kirkuk that was taken over by militants during the offensive, officials said.
Maliki’s security spokesman has said that hundreds of soldiers have been killed since the insurgent offensive was launched on June 9, while the UN puts the overall death toll at over 1,000, mostly civilians.
The US has pushed for political reconciliation and while it has stopped short of calling for the premier to go, it has left little doubt it feels he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq since American troops withdrew in late-2011.
US officials have also said a proposed $500-million plan to arm and train moderate rebels in neighbouring Syria could also help Iraq fight ISIL, which operates in both countries.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Saturday in Damascus, meanwhile, that Moscow ‘will not remain passive to the attempts by some groups to spread terrorism in the region.
‘The situation is very dangerous in Iraq and the foundations of the Iraqi state are under threat.’
Ryabkov, whose country is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main backer, did not elaborate on what steps Russia might take.
World leaders have insisted on a political settlement among Iraq’s Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, revered among the country’s Shiite majority, has urged political leaders to quickly form a government after parliament convenes on Tuesday.
Maliki, who has publicly focused on a military response to the crisis, has acknowledged that political measures are also necessary, but politicians have nevertheless cautioned that naming a new cabinet could still take a month or more.
Despite unity calls, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani has said Baghdad could no longer object to Kurdish self-rule in Kirkuk and other areas from which federal forces withdrew as the insurgents advanced.
Kurdish forces moved into areas vacated by Iraqi federal soldiers, putting them in control of disputed areas that they have long wanted to incorporate into their three-province autonomous region, a move Baghdad strongly opposes.
International agencies have sounded the alarm over the humanitarian consequences of the fighting, with up to 10,000 people having fled a northern Christian town and 1.2 million people displaced in Iraq this year.
The International Organisation for Migration warned that aid could not reach tens of thousands of displaced Iraqis, and called for humanitarian corridors.