JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday the Syrian government’s attempts to suppress a rebellion amounted to “genocide” and called for rebels to get military aid to defend themselves, in a sharp escalation of rhetoric over the conflict.
Speaking at a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Jeddah, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal criticized Iran, Russia and Hezbollah for backing and arming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Syria is facing a double-edged attack. It is facing genocide by the government and an invasion from outside the government ... (It) is facing a massive flow of weapons to aid and abet that invasion and that genocide. This must end,” he said.
The prince did not spell out what he meant by genocide but the kingdom has accused Assad of using air and artillery strikes against heavily populated civilian areas.
The Syrian war has also become increasingly sectarian, pitting the president, from an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam, against rebels mostly from the country’s Sunni Muslim majority.
The fighting has accentuated sectarian divisions across the region. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states have already sent arms to the insurgents, while analysts and diplomats say Shi‘ite power Iran, along with Russia, is among Assad’s main suppliers.
Prince Saud said the world’s top oil exporter “cannot be silent” at the recent decision by Lebanese Shi‘ite militant group Hezbollah to send fighters into Syria to back Assad - the latest sign of how Syria’s neighbors are getting entangled.
“The most dangerous development is the foreign participation, represented by Hezbollah and other militias supported by the forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard,” the prince said, repeating a call for rebels to be armed.
“The kingdom calls for issuing an unequivocal international resolution to halt the provision of arms to the Syrian regime and states the illegitimacy of the regime,” he added.
Kerry has returned to the Middle East after a two-day visit to India and, his aides say, will continue efforts to strengthen the Syrian opposition and revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
In Jeddah, Kerry held discussions with Prince Saud and Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who coordinates the kingdom’s efforts to topple Assad.
The discussions included Washington’s plans for providing direct military support to General Salim Idriss of the Supreme Military Council, the military wing of Syria’s main civilian opposition group.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said he will arm the rebels but has not disclosed what type of assistance he will provide.
Kerry is trying to ensure that the aid to the rebels is properly coordinated among the allies, in part out of concern that weapons could end up in the hands of extremist groups.
“Our goal is very clear, we cannot let this be a wider war. We cannot let this contribute to more bloodshed and prolongation of the agony of the people of Syria,” he said at the conference.
A meeting between Kerry and European and Arab counterparts in Doha last week agreed to increase support for Syria’s rebels although there was no consensus over providing arms, with Germany and Italy strongly opposed.
More than 93,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which began as a protest movement against Assad.
Reporting By Mahmoud Habboush and Lesley Wroughton, Editing by Angus McDowall and Andrew Heavens