Syrian opposition says West is already aiding rebels
WESTERN powers have begun providing military support to the Syrian rebel army, a major opposition grouping claimed today, as world leaders gathered in Tunis to discuss how to end Assad rule in the country.
Bassma Kodmani, a senior figure on the executive of the Syrian National Council, said countries she refused to name were already supplying equipment including military communications technology, body armour and night-vision goggles to the Free Syrian Army.
She was more reluctant to discuss the provision of light arms such as rifles, but she hinted that other allies were beginning to send in lethal weapons.
The rebels have issued desperate calls for weapons to enable them to take on the heavy armour of President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
"Defensive and light equipment are what they are doing on the ground," she said. "It has begun."
Her claims were immediately denied by western officials. A senior diplomat said that provision of military supplies had not begun nor was even being discussed between them. "There are lots of people saying that the Qataris and Saudis are talking about it, but I'm not even aware of that."
The diplomat said Western powers still considered a military solution was "going to take a long time and a high cost", and that attempts to bring it to an end through pressure on the regime, including from Russia, were still the best hope.
Western officials and the SNC are keen to stress the "humanitarian" purpose of the meeting of "Friends of Syria" in Tunis today, a gathering of countries keen to put an end to the crisis organised in light of the failure of the United Nations to take action. More than 50 foreign ministers will be attending.
They will discuss proposals by the Red Cross and the SNC to establish "humanitarian corridors" allowing the access of aid, with the agreement of the Syrian authorities. One suggestion is for a daily two-hour ceasefire to allow supplies in and the injured to be taken to safety.
That proposal would rely on Russia, which has agreed to the plan in outline, putting pressure on the regime. But Russia and China, which support the regime and have vetoed attempts to censure it and call for President Assad to step aside at the UN, are both boycotting the conference.
Humanitarian relief, which a draft conference communique demands be allowed within 48 hours, is likely to be the first task for Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general appointed as a special envoy on Thursday night.
The gathering will make a key diplomatic breakthrough, recognising the SNC as "a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change".
This stops short of the recognition granted in the early stages of the Libyan uprising to the Transitional National Council as the country's legitimate government. But Western leaders hope it will give credibility to the main Syrian opposition voice in discussion of what will happen following what they regard as an "inevitable" transition of power.
It is also a warning of the possible "Libyan" fate awaiting the Assads, and an encouragement to senior figures inside the regime but not personally loyal to it that there is an alternative.
"We, in common with other nations, will now treat them and recognise them as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people," Mr Hague said.
The draft communique being discussed makes no mention of military intervention or even the supply of weapons. Western officials have ruled out direct intervention and, while not denying that supplying weapons is an option and a last resort if all else fails, say it is not on the agenda in the immediate future.
However, a state department official in a briefing yesterday pointedly refused to rule out negotiations on the issue today, behind closed doors.
Mrs Kodmani told The Daily Telegraph that matters wrere already further advanced than that. "The provision of arms is now a consensus," she said.
"There are informal networks that have been operating. Many arms are getting into the country." She specified that "Western" countries were providing communications, body armour and night-vision goggles.
This is particularly significant as these, along with technical and advisory support on the ground from special forces, represented the limits of British military aid to Libya.
Actual weapons were largely supplied by Qatar, which is also the driving force for intervention in Syria by the Arab League.
The rebels are largely dependent on Kalashnikovs, many brought with them by defecting regime troops but some bought at inflated prices on the black market in Turkey and Lebanon, rocket-propelled grenades, and a few mortars. They are believed to have a small number of more specialised weapons taken from the regular army, including anti-tank guided weapons, at least one of which has already been used successfully in the battlefield.
As the diplomats gathered, the bombardment of Syrian cities continued.
Five more people died in the Homs suburb of Baba Amr, where two western jouranalists, Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times and Remi Ochlik, a French freelance photographer, were killed on Wednesday.
Attempts were continuing to rescue other journalists wounded at the same time, including Paul Conroy, a British photographer on assignment with The Sunday Times, and Edith Bouvier, a French reporter.