KERRY STEPS UP WAR ON SYRIA – as conflict spreads into Iraq


US SECRETARY of State John Kerry expressed confidence on Tuesday that weapons being supplied by Gulf countries to the Syrian rebels were reaching the ‘right people’, as he visited key rebel ally Qatar.

‘We had discussions about the type of weapons that are being transferred. We are aware of what people are doing,’ Kerry told reporters in Doha at a press conference with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani.

The new top US diplomat was on the last leg of his maiden Gulf tour, with the Syrian conflict topping the agenda, amid concerns that arms reportedly being supplied to Syria’s insurgents by Gulf countries, including Qatar, were falling into the hands of jihadists.

‘We did discuss the question of the ability to try to guarantee (that the weapons) are going to the right people and to the moderate Syrian opposition coalition,’ he added, while repeating earlier comments on the impossibility of ensuring that.

On Monday, Kerry said in Abu Dhabi that ‘there is no guarantee that one weapon or another might not fall into the wrong hands.’ We need to ensure that our support strengthens the moderate opposition,’ he said.

Meanwhile, Sheikh Hamad warned that if the conflict is not resolved soon, ‘we will find extremist parties taking part in it,’ accusing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of ‘using this issue’ to gain support against his opponents.

However, he said: ‘I am optimistic that the international community has started to work in a way by which the Syrian people would achieve victory faster. The terrorist is Bashar. He is the one killing his people. There is a change now in the international and American stance’ on Syria, which has been locked in a two-year conflict in which the United Nations estimates more than 70,000 people have been killed. They are now discussing weapons.’

The United States has so far refused to arm Syrian rebels. Kerry had said during a visit to Riyadh that Washington was working with its ‘friends to empower the Syrian opposition,’ while stressing it was not arming the rebels.

Several oil-rich monarchies of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have supported the rebellion against Assad, a staunch ally of their regional foe Iran.

Saudi counterpart Prince Saud al-Faisal has insisted on the right of Syrians to self-defence.

GCC members are dissatisfied by the refusal of US President Barack Obama’s administration to arm the rebels, analysts say.

Washington said last month it would provide direct aid to the rebel fighters in the form of food and medical assistance, but not the weapons they hoped for, as well as $60 million in funding for the political opposition. At the time, National Coalition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib took a jibe at the West when he spoke of fears weapons might fall into the hands of extremists. ‘A lot of people, particularly the media, pay more attention to the length of fighters’ beards (an allusion to jihadists) than to the shedding of children’s blood and regime bombardments,’ he said.

Kerry is due to wrap up his regional tour on Wednesday after visiting Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. Kerry said on Wednesday that ‘a lot of countries’ are training Syrian rebels as part of stepped up efforts to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. ‘It’s one part of it. But other nations are doing other things. There are a lot of nations working at this. And so I think President Assad needs to read the tea leaves correctly,’ Kerry told Fox News during a visit to Qatar. Kerry did not say which countries were involved in the effort or whether the United States was training rebels.

‘There are a lot of countries doing training,’ Kerry said. What is important is that President Assad needs to understand the re-focus of commitment in order to get him to change his current calculation, and in order to hopefully get his allies to advise him: “You need to go to the table and negotiate a peaceful resolution.”’

The United States says it has so far refused to arm the rebels, but on Tuesday Kerry expressed confidence that weapons supplied by Gulf countries were reaching the ‘right people.’

Washington said last month it would provide direct aid to the rebel fighters in the form of food and medical assistance, as well as $60 million in funding for the political opposition, but not the weapons they have asked for. Kerry is due to wrap up his maiden regional tour on Wednesday after visiting Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.

• The killing of 48 Syrian soldiers in neighbouring Iraq threatens to entangle Baghdad in Syria’s war, a conflict in which it has sought to remain neutral. A convoy carrying wounded Syrian soldiers was ambushed as it passed through Iraq’s western Anbar province on Monday en route to the Syrian border, where they were to be returned through ‘official channels’, the Iraqi defence ministry said.

Nine Iraqi guards were also killed, the ministry added.

Baghdad has consistently avoided joining calls for the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom rebels are fighting to overthrow. Instead, it says it opposes arming either side and has urged an end to violence by all parties. But the ambush is just the latest encroachment into Iraq of the bloody and protracted conflict to jeopardise its efforts to remain outside the fray.

The Syrian war ‘is a conflict with regional dimensions,’ which particularly threatens religiously and ethnically mixed countries, such as Iraq and Lebanon, said political analyst Hamid Fadhel. Monday’s ambush ‘will increase the danger of the conflict in Syria today, and is a clear message for all Iraqis that what is happening in Syria’ has moved to Iraq, Fadhel said.

John Drake, an Iraq specialist with risk consulting firm AKE Group, said the ambush potentially marked a major escalation in the spillover of the conflict. ‘If this was actually by Syrian rebels, it would be the biggest incursion into Iraqi territory since the start of the fighting in Syria,’ he said, adding there might have been at least ‘some support from Iraqi nationals’. The fact that the (Syrian) victims entered Iraq for their safety could prompt the Syrian rebels to view Iraq and Iraqi interests as a potential threat to their effort,’ he said. ‘This could therefore lead to a rise in intent amongst some of the more radical anti-Assad groups to attack the Iraqi state.’

Iraq has been caught between conflicting pressures on the Syria conflict – its eastern neighbour, Iran, backs Assad, while the United States and many Arab states support his overthrow.

Political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari said the conflict had the potential to inflame sectarian tensions inside Iraq, which was rocked by devastating bloodshed between its Sunni Arab minority and Shi’ite majority in 2006 and 2007.

Assad’s regime is dominated by his minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, while the rebels are mainly Sunni. ‘If Iraq gets involved in the Syria conflict, it will be the beginning of a major armed sectarian explosion,’ Shammari said.

Official reaction to the ambush highlighted Iraq’s fears of a spillover of the violence. The defence ministry said a Syrian ‘terrorist group,’ carried out the ambush, which it termed ‘an attack against the sovereignty of Iraq, its land and its dignity.’

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s spokesman, Ali Mussawi, said: ‘This confirms our fears of the attempt of some to move the conflict to Iraq, but we will face these attempts by all sides with all of our power.’

It is not the first time the conflict has crossed the border. Fire from the Syrian side killed an Iraqi soldier in northern Iraq on Saturday and a young girl in western Iraq on September 7 last year. US officials have also repeatedly called on the Iraqi government to halt the use of its airspace by Iranian flights to Syria, charging that they are being used to transport weapons to Assad’s forces.

On Sunday, the Syrian National Council, a key armed opposition group, alleged that Iraq ‘gave political and intelligence support to the Syrian regime’. And like other countries bordering Syria, Iraq has seen the arrival of a flood of refugees from the conflict – more than 105,000, according to the United Nations.