Catherine Rama, AFP
Last updated: 24 July, 2013

Syrian opposition chief in France to seek support and arms

Syria’s opposition leader is scheduled to meet French President Francois Hollande Wednesday, a day after asking France for military aid to boost the forces fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“This is one of the goals of our visit among other issues,” new opposition chief Ahmad Jarba told reporters after meeting members of the French parliament’s foreign affairs committee on Tuesday at the start of a two-day trip.

“Obviously we will ask France for total political support, diplomatic support, humanitarian emergency aid, and military and other aid,” said Jarba.

Free Syrian Army chief General Selim Idriss added that the opposition was “working with our European and American friends to obtain technical, medical and humanitarian assistance and, we hope, also weapons and ammunition” as the rebels did “not have enough” weapons.

It is Jarba’s first visit to France since he was elected head of the main opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) on July 6.

He said Hollande’s invitation was proof of France’s interest in Syria’s fate.

After France, Jarba will head to New York for meetings at the United Nations.

Britain said the 15-nation UN Security Council, including Russia and China, would hold its first meeting with the SNC leadership on Friday.

French officials said talks with the opposition were also being planned in London and Berlin.

The United Nations has been told of 13 alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria, a top UN official said ahead of talks between UN experts and the Syrian government.

The two experts arrived in Beirut on Tuesday and were expected to travel to Damascus Wednesday.

However the UN’s hopes of investigating chemical weapon attacks in Syria suffered a blow when rebels seized a key town, diplomats in New York said.

Opposition fighters took Khan al-Assal from Assad’s forces two days ahead of the arrival in Damascus of Ake Sellstrom, head of the UN inquiry into the use of chemical arms in the 28-month-old conflict, and UN disarmament affairs chief Angela Kane.

Khan al-Assal was the scene of a deadly March 19 attack that the government blamed on the opposition when it called for a UN investigation.

But Britain, France and the United States have since presented evidence of other suspected chemical attacks which they blame on Assad forces. And the government has refused to let UN inspectors in unless they stick to the Khan al-Assal.

“If the government does not control Khan al-Assal then there is little chance they will let UN experts in,” said one UN Security Council diplomat.

All the major powers now agree that chemical arms have been used in the 28 month old conflict. But the wrangling over who carried out the attacks has become a new source of division over Syria.

Robert Serry, the United Nations envoy on the Middle East peace process, told the Security Council that UN leader Ban Ki-moon remained “gravely concerned” about reports of the use of chemical arms in the 28-month-old conflict.

The rebellion’s Western backers have been sceptical of supplying weapons to the opposition, amid fears they could fall into the hands of radical Islamists.

A diplomatic source said Paris would insist on the “political perspective” of resolving Syria’s civil war.

The meetings come amid a deadlock in efforts to convene a follow-up to last year’s Geneva conference on establishing a transitional government.

The military battle is also locked in stalemate, with the UN saying up to 100,000 people have been killed since protests against Assad started in March 2011.

Across Syria, warplanes and helicopter gunships carried out intense air raids on Tuesday as fighting raged in and around the capital between regime and rebel forces, a watchdog said.

The raids killed five people in the town of Tabqa in the northern province of Raqa, and six others, including two women and three children, in Sermin in the northwestern province of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Syrian Kurds meanwhile made rapid advances in the north on Tuesday, expelling jihadists from a string of villages, as mistrust between Kurds and Arabs grows, a watchdog and activists said.

Fighting hit a series of ethnically mixed villages in the northern province of Raqa on the border with Turkey, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

And the Lebanese government imposed new entry controls on Syrians on Tuesday in a bid to reduce friction between the host population and the 600,000 who have already crossed.

Fresh from visiting a huge refugee camp, US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday huddled with UN and aid organisation leaders to discuss ways to help millions caught in the crossfire in Syria.

With no end in sight to the conflict, 1.8 million Syrians are now refugees in neighbouring countries.