Al-Nusra fears hinder West aid to Syria rebels

Al-Nusra fears hinder West aid to Syria rebels

Al-Nusra fears hinder West aid to Syria rebels

SNC head al-Khatib (L) is seen with top diplomat Davutoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry(R). DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜREL

Western countries backing the Syrian uprising have once again stopped short of delivering lethal aid to rebels seeking to overthrow the regime amid fears that jihadist groups might get a foothold in the war-torn country despite pledges to the contrary from the opposition.

The United States prepared a major boost in non-lethal military aid while European nations considered changes to an arms embargo that would allow arms transfers to the Syrian opposition following a weekend meeting of the 11-member core group of the Friends of Syrian People in Istanbul. But European Union action seems unlikely before May, and the fresh U.S. help was certain to fall short of the demands from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC): heavy weapons and ammunition.

The Syrian opposition’s Western backers have been alarmed at the rise of radical Islamist groups like the al-Nusra Front in the rebel ranks. In a statement after the meeting in Istanbul, the 11 ministers recognized the “need to change the balance of power on the ground” and pledged to “enhance and expand their support to all coalition institutions,” including increased support to the coalition’s military council.

The U.S. will provide rebels with $123 million in new, non-lethal aid, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said early yesterday after the meeting, adding that the additional money would double the non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition. However, he ignored calls for arms deliveries.

Later in the day, Kerry said there were serious questions about what is happening in Syria. “Because of some people, the extremists who have come into Syria, they could threaten Israel, they could threaten Turkey, they could threaten simply the integrity of Syria,” Kerry said, referring to rapprochement between Turkey and Israel.

Some Arab states are supplying the rebels with arms, and Britain and France are leading a push to modify the EU’s arms embargo on Syria to permit weapons transfers to the opposition. The embargo is to expire at the end of May unless it is extended or revised.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Berlin would have no choice but to accept the lifting of an EU arms embargo on Syria if other European countries push for it. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the EU would discuss the question of easing an arms embargo in the coming weeks, while adding that the opposition had given the clearest commitment yet at the meeting to working toward a democratic solution in Syria and condemning extremism.

The SNC outlined its vision in a declaration for an era after President Bashar al-Assad, rejecting “all forms of terrorism” and vowing to keep weapons out of the “wrong hands” in a nod to the demands of its Western backers, and said its goal was a “democratic, pluralistic” Syria.

Syria’s al-Nusra Front, one of the most effective rebel forces battling al-Assad’s troops, formally pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri this month. The U.S. has designated al-Nusra as a terrorist organization.