Syria, Moscow denounce US aid to rebels
DAMASCUS - Agence France-Presse
AFP PhotoSyria and ally Russia denounced on Friday a US pledge to provide direct aid, but no arms, to rebel fighters, saying it will fuel more violence in the nearly two-year war that has killed at least 70,000 people.
The opposition, meanwhile, accused regime forces of a new "massacre" in the northern province of Aleppo, with 72 people executed and burned, while Islamists fighters reportedly seized a crossing on the Iraqi border.
The United States said on Thursday it would provide direct aid to the rebels in the form of food and medical assistance, as well as $60 million in funding for the political opposition.
US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the aid package alongside Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition National Coalition, after talks in Rome of the Friends of Syria group of Arab and Western nations.
The move is a significant shift in US policy but falls short of rebel demands for Western backers to supply the rebellion with weapons or non-offensive military equipment.
Russia's foreign ministry said the decision would backfire and encourage "extremists to take power by force." But senior opposition figure Burhan Ghalioun told AFP it was the very failure to arm the rebels that "favours the rise of extremists," saying he hoped Washington would realise this was a "mistaken policy." Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the US decision was "unfortunate," with Washington choosing "not to sully its hands with direct supply of weapons to the armed groups, because among them are terrorists and others with whom the US would prefer not to be associated." But "they give a wink and a nod to those who provide direct military aid to rebel armed groups," he told pro-Kremlin television channel RT.
Instead, Churkin said it was time for the opposition to come up with a "well-articulated political programme to be able to enter into talks with the Syrian government.
Kerry said the "stakes are really high. And we can't risk letting this country, in the heart of the Middle East, be destroyed by vicious autocrats or hijacked by the extremists." On Friday the US secretary of state was in Turkey for talks on the Syrian conflict.
The opposition and outgunned rebels have repeatedly urged world powers to arm them, but the West fears the weapons will fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.
Khatib expressed disappointment on Thursday that the West once again dashed opposition hopes for weapons while arms continued to flow to Assad's regime.
"A lot of people, particularly the media, pay more attention to the length of fighters' beards (an allusion to jihadists) than to the shedding of children's blood and regime bombardments," said the Coalition chief.
"Indications are that there has been an international decision not to arm the Syria resistance with high-calibre weapons.
"If that is what you want, then stop providing the regime with these types of weapons, which continue to arrive under the pretext of honouring existing contracts," said Khatib.
For its part, the European Union renewed on Thursday wide-ranging sanctions against Syria's regime while leaving the door open to providing technical assistance, including training, to the opposition.
And the New York Times quoted US State Department officials as saying the CIA had been training Syrian rebels in Jordan since last year but not provided them with any weapons or ammunition.
The United Nations says the conflict has cost the lives of at least 70,000 people and uprooted hundreds of thousands.
The death toll appeared to grow, with claims from the coalition that Assad's forces executed 72 people after a raid on Monday on Malkiyeh village in Aleppo province, adding that 49 bodies had been identified.
The Aleppo Press Centre, run by a network of anti-regime activists, said children, women and elderly people were among the victims, who it said were targeted on charges of having collaborated with rebel fighters.
"Twenty-three other people have not been identified because their bodies were too badly burnt," it said.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said jihadist fighters of the Al-Nusra Front have seized control of a checkpoint on the northeastern border with Iraq.
The Observatory said 114 people had been killed nationwide on Thursday.