ANTAKYA, Turkey (Reuters) - Syria’s opposition says the United States must overcome its fear of Islamists among the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, and start arming the resistance movement to show it wants the entire ruling elite removed.
Islamists are among the most effective fighters against the Syrian leadership, some opposition figures said, and Washington needs to know that while these rebels are conservative Muslims they are a far cry from Afghan-style jihadi militants.
Frustration is growing that the United States will not supply weapons to the rebels, who have largely used small arms during the 16-month uprising against Assad and a state apparatus dominated by members of his Alawite minority.
“We have been kissing the hand of the United States and the rest of the world for the 16 months to intervene. Now, after Assad spared no one in Syria, the United States is surprised that al Qaeda may be operating in the country,” veteran opposition campaigner Fawaz al-Tello said from Istanbul.
Opposition campaigners and Free Syrian Army commanders said the rebels need weapons such as shoulder-fired missiles to destroy the tanks and bring down the helicopters that Assad is using against the uprising. Washington could anyway supply parts of the diverse rebel movement which are more to its liking.
“The U.S. has intelligence on the ground and by clever management it can channel weapons to the right people. First it has to give a clear signal that it really wants an end of the Alawite-dominated police state in Syria and not just the sidelining of Bashar,” said Tello, speaking from Istanbul.
World powers struck an agreement on Saturday that a transitional Syrian government should be set up to end the conflict in which more than 10,000 people have died, but they remained at odds over what part Assad might play.
So far the United States has supplied almost negligible amounts of “non-lethal” aid such as walkie-talkie radios trickling across the Lebanese border, opposition figures said. Officials have made clear Washington opposes arming the rebels because they lack a unified command and due to concerns that high-tech weapons may fall into the hands of Islamists.
Mohaimen al-Rumaid, a member of the Syrian Rebel Front, said Washington was failing to recognize that the country’s Islamist rebels were different from the Taliban fighting NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, and that they were not anti-American.
“The Americans have not come to terms with the fact that Islamist elements are among the most effective fighters in Syria and that they are not militant or jihadist in the Afghan sense. Syrians have always been conservative Muslims, but not militant,” he said.
U.S. intelligence officials have said weapons funded by sympathizers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar are crossing the Lebanese border to the rebels. These are mostly small arms such as AK-47 automatic weapons plus some anti-tank guided munitions and rocket-propelled grenades.
Sameh al-Hamwi, a prominent activist based on Syria’s border with Turkey, said some rebel groups were adopting Islamist slogans and making jihadist-style videos. However, these were to please their financiers in the Gulf and he denied that political Islam was deeply rooted in the resistance.
U.S. officials said Washington is increasing the non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. “We strongly support efforts to remove Bashar Assad from power. He’s a menace to the Syrian people, who have suffered terrible brutality at the hands of his regime. Suggestions that we are not encouraging resistance to the Syrian regime are simply incorrect,” one official said.
Opposition figures, who have met U.S. diplomats to discuss supplies, said Washington was looking at ways of providing Internet and mobile phone access from neighboring countries. This would allow the rebels to bypass Syrian networks which are under government surveillance with Russian help, resulting in the arrest and torture of thousands of activists.
Hamwi said U.S. officials appeared to be collecting intelligence on the rebels without helping them.
“Activists meet with them hoping to get medical supplies and they start asking for information about the Free Syrian Army. The United States seems not to mind Assad inflicting so much bloodshed as he can so the people become utterly exhausted and accept whatever deal Washington wants,” Hamwi said.
Only errors by Assad were helping the rebels’ cause, he said. Hamwi pointed to Syria’s shooting down last month of a Turkish jet, prompting Ankara to send troops towards the Syrian border and raising hopes among the opposition that a de facto ‘safe zone’ would be established.
“Luckily Assad is making fatal mistakes. Who would have imagined that the regime is stupid enough to down that Turkish plane, which has renewed Turkish willingness to support the revolt?” he said.
The U.S. Intelligence officials have said Russia has supplied Syrian forces with advanced air defense systems as well as attack helicopters, while Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah have provided lethal and non-lethal aid such as small arms, communications equipment and riot-control gear.
A lieutenant colonel who recently defected from Assad’s army and is leading armed struggle in the province of Hama, said that as far as he knew no one in Hama had any U.S. equipment.
“We are left alone while Tehran and Moscow are arming Assad and he has an open supply line through Iraq,” he said on a brief trip to Turkey to meet defector officers based on the border.
Mustafa al-Sheikh, a general in the Free Syrian Army who heads an organization of senior officers who have defected, said Washington could channel weapons “to trusted rebels and help to ensure stability after Assad falls”.
However, he added: “I have become convinced that the only way to get real arms is to rely on the stockpiles inside Syria and the corruption pervading the Syrian army. The rebels are also increasingly capturing weapons in their guerrilla operations against loyalist fortifications.”
Sheikh said he was not convinced of the reasons that Washington is giving for not supplying weapons.
The United States and Israel, he said, were grappling with the possibility of a more assertive replacement to the Assad family. He noted that the Golan Heights - a Syrian border area occupied by Israel in 1967 - had been largely quiet in recent decades under Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, from whom he inherited power 12 years ago.
Assad’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam, has dominated the majority Sunni Muslim country of 21 million people for the last five decades via the army and secret police.
“The United States, Israel and other world powers have calculated their interest in the region the last five decades based on minority rule in Syria,” said Sheikh who is based at a camp set up by Turkey for defecting officers on the Syrian border.
“Washington does not want to risk a Sunni ascendancy by supporting the Syrian revolution, even as Assad continues his bloodbath and gets more support from Iran,” said Sheikh.
Additional reporting by Phillip Stewart in Washington; editing by David Stamp