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'Friends of Syria' meet under pressure to arm rebels

Syrian rebel fighters move through the Umayyad Mosque complex in the old city of Aleppo on April 16, 2013
Syrian rebel fighters move through the Umayyad Mosque complex in the old city of Aleppo on April 16, 2013. The main international backers of Syria's opposition gather in Istanbul on Saturday with the rebels hoping Western and Arab countries will step up t

The main international backers of Syria's opposition gather in Istanbul on Saturday with the rebels hoping Western and Arab countries will step up their support, including with arms.

The 11-nation core group of the "Friends of Syria" -- including the United States, European nations and Arab countries -- will hold talks with key figures in the opposition battling President Bashar al-Assad.

The group has so far struggled to come up with a united strategy to end the violence in Syria, despite fighting that has seen more than 70,000 killed and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes.

The opposition is pressing its foreign allies to supply arms to the rebels, but analysts said it was unlikely Saturday's meeting will mark a major breakthrough.

Speaking to US lawmakers this week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the talks would be an effort to "get everybody on the same page," but also voiced caution.

"We're trying to proceed carefully, to make sure that we're not contributing to a worse mess, but that we're actually finding a constructive path forward," Kerry said.

A senior US official said late Friday that Kerry would propose boosting Washington's non-lethal aid to the rebels at the Istanbul meeting.

The aid would be for "moderate opposition groups, including the Syrian Opposition Coalition, local councils, civil society organizations and the Supreme Military Council," a senior State Department official told reporters.

A young Syrian boy takes a rest after collecting plastic and metal in a garbage dump in Aleppo on April 17, 2013
A young Syrian boy takes a rest after collecting plastic and metal items in a garbage dump in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 17, 2013.

US media reports have already suggested Washington was preparing to provide battlefield gear to the rebels such as body armour, vehicles and night-vision goggles, but not arms.

Many in the West have raised concerns about arming the rebels, fearing weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist groups like the Al-Nusra Front, which this month pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

Britain and France have been pushing for a European Union arms embargo to be allowed to expire by the end of May, but have appeared more wary since the Al-Qaeda pledge.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told European lawmakers this week there is a "whole series of arguments" on both sides of the arms debate and that the issue would be discussed in Istanbul.

Supporters of arms supplies have said the rise of Islamist groups like Al-Nusra is only a stronger argument for providing weapons to more moderate voices in the Syrian opposition.

An internally displaced Syrian boy stands in the Maiber al-Salam refugee camp on the Turkish border on April 17, 2013
An internally displaced Syrian boy stands near tents in the Maiber al-Salam refugee camp along the Turkish border in the northern province of Aleppo on April 17, 2013.

Among opposition figures expected to attend the talks are Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the outgoing head of the main opposition Syrian National Coalition, and Ghassan Hitto, who last month was picked as prime minister of an opposition interim government.

Analysts said much of the talk would focus on getting the transitional government up and running in areas of Syria under rebel control, mainly in the north.

Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center, said the meeting was coming at a "crucial time" after Hitto's election. He said he expected talks to focus on how to help the interim government build its capacity to rule and provide humanitarian aid.

"The truth is they (the interim government) are not a factor on the ground and they won't have any credibility until they are," he said. "They've got a very long way to go."

Michael Stephens, a Qatar-based researcher for the RUSI think tank, said he doubted there would be any movement on meeting the rebels' demands for arms.

"That debate is still well and truly stuck in the mud," he said.

Many have accused the Friends of Syria of dithering while the country burns, with Shaikh dubbing the group "The Coalition of the Unwilling."

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, which has been Assad's strongest diplomatic backer, said this week the group was making a "negative contribution" by undermining efforts at political dialogue.

But Stephens said the gatherings were still important.

"These meetings have to keep happening in order for there to be any hope of anything other than endless war," he said.

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