PARIS (Reuters) - France said on Thursday it needed more talks with Syrian rebels before it could supply them with heavy weapons and said recent gains by Syrian government forces did not mean President Bashar al-Assad was heading for a “complete victory.”
Foreign ministers from the Friends of Syria anti-Assad alliance, which includes the United States, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will meet on Saturday in the Qatari capital Doha to discuss assistance for the Free Syrian Army.
France, which has actively supported the rebels in its former colony, has not yet chosen to arm them since pushing, along with Britain, to have an EU arms embargo lifted. It says it will not make a decision before August 1.
“As far as weapons go, there is no question of delivering weapons in conditions that we aren’t sure about and that means we won’t deliver weapons so that they are turned against us,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters during a visit to the annual Paris Airshow.
“It’s one of the reasons why we need more consultations with General Salim Idriss who is the commander on the ground.”
Saturday’s conference follows a high-level Friends of Syria meeting in Ankara last week among diplomats and intelligence officers during which Idriss discussed his needs ranging from tent pegs and intelligence to anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, according to diplomatic sources.
Syria’s 27-month conflict appears to be reaching a turning point after Assad’s forces backed by Iran and Lebanese militia Hezbollah captured Qusair, in central Homs province near the Lebanese border, earlier this month.
Assad’s troops have since turned their attention to retake Aleppo, the Damascus suburbs and parts of the south of the country where they have been mired in a bloody stalemate with rebels for nearly a year.
“It isn’t possible that just like that Assad achieves a complete victory. Anyway he remains a dictator,” Fabius said.
With rebels struggling to push back advances by forces loyal to Assad, Paris argues that something must be done urgently to change the balance of power.
At a summit of the Group of Eight nations in Northern Ireland this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin harshly criticized the Western talks about arming the rebels while defending his own supplies of arms for Assad.
French sources said a “political decision” among the 11-strong core group of nations to help Idriss has been made, but that states still had to “tick boxes” for what they would offer.
“We have discussed with Idriss to see how we could help him collectively and in a complimentary way,” said one source. “Some people can provide certain things and others different things, and all that fairly quickly.”
Paris has so far given non-lethal aid including bullet proof vests, night vision goggles and communications equipment to Idriss. It is ready to widen the scale of equipment and provide “technical assistance” such as sophisticated weapons training and intelligence.
“If we want Idriss to have absolute control of all opposition fighting brigades then we’ll be waiting a long time,” said the source.
“We need to do something dynamic to strengthen his command structure quickly and progressively to have an impact.”
Editing by Gareth Jones