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Syria foreign minister: Arming rebels is dangerous

by ALBERT AJI Associated Press on June 24, 2013 10:00 AM

DAMASCUS, Syria — The decision by the United States and its allies to arm rebel groups in Syria is “very dangerous” and will prolong the violence and killing on the ground, Syria’s foreign minister said today.

Walid al-Moallem said sending more weapons to the opposition will also hinder efforts to bring both sides to the table in a planned peace conference in Geneva. He said his country remains ready and willing to take part but added President Bashar Assad will not step down.

Al-Moallem’s comments came two days after an 11-nation group that includes the U.S. met in the Qatari capital of Doha and agreed to step up military and other assistance to the Syrian rebels. He said all those who met in Doha “have Syrian blood on their hands.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who took part in the conference, would not disclose details of the aid, saying only that it would re-balance the fight between the rebels and the government. Assad’s better-equipped forces are increasingly backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group.

“We are not scared,” al-Moallem said of the decision. “If they dream or are delusional about achieving a balance with the Syrian Arab Army, I think they need to wait years and this won’t be achieved.”

“They will not be victorious no matter how much they conspire,” al-Moallem added. He said arming the rebels “is a dangerous decision because it aims at prolonging the crisis, prolonging the violence and killing and encouraging terrorism.”

The Friends of Syria gathering in Doha was Kerry’s first meeting with his counterparts on the practicalities of assisting the Syrian rebels since President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would send lethal aid to the opposition. The decision came despite concerns that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists in the rebel coalition.

Obama’s change of policy was partly based on a U.S. intelligence assessment that Assad had used chemical weapons, but Kerry expressed deeper concern about Damascus’ foreign support. He said that Iranian as well as Hezbollah fighters had joined the war.

Al-Moallem denied categorically that any Iranian fighters were in Syria. Damascus admits that Hezbollah is assisting government troops.

The foreign minister said his regime was willing to take part in any peace conference, but will go to Geneva not to hand over power to the other side but rather to establish “a real partnership” and a national unity government that includes representatives of all Syrian society.

“President Bashar Assad will not step down,” he said. “If anyone has such illusions on the other side, my advice to them is not to go to Geneva,” he said. He nonetheless called the conference an “opportunity that should not be missed.”

He defiantly said Syria will not accept any solutions or even ideas dictated from the outside.

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.

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