Western powers hold urgent talks on arming rebels as assault intensifies
The United States, France and Britain are in urgent talks over how, whether and when to arm Syrian rebel groups as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad intensified their assault on the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.
The "intense discussions" followed the US announcement on Thursday that it would increase military support to opposition fighters after Western intelligence agencies confirmed that the Syrian regime had crossed a "red line" by using chemical weapons.
"We will be discussing that response urgently with the United States, France and other countries, including at the G8," said William Hague, the British foreign secretary, calling for "a strong, determined and coordinated response from the international community".
The sudden intensification of conflict on the ground, which saw the rebels lose the strategic city of Qusayr a week ago, sets up a renewed diplomatic confrontation between Russia and the West at next week's G8 summit in Northern Ireland.
Added urgency was provided by the disclosure from British Prime Minister David Cameron that rebel groups affiliated with al-Qa'ida "have attempted to acquire" chemical weapons for use in Syria, citing briefings from British intelligence.
The US announcement that it would be sending military aid to the rebels, including communications equipment, logistical support and – according to some officials – light weapons and ammunition, has sharply upped the ante on Syria.
The Kremlin, which has backed the regime diplomatically and militarily and ignored months of Western entreaties to use its influence to rein in Mr Assad, reacted with derision to Washington's finding that Syria had used chemical weapons.
"What was presented by the Americans does not look convincing to us," said Yuri Ushakov, President Vladimir Putin's foreign affairs adviser, before comparing the findings to the US intelligence dossiers on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
Syria also predictably scorned the US findings, accusing the White House of making "a statement full of lies about the use of chemical weapons in Syria based on fabricated information", according to a foreign ministry official.
"The United States is using cheap tactics to justify President Barack Obama's decision to arm the Syrian opposition," he added.
In Washington, Senator John McCain said the increased US support for the Syrian opposition was woefully inadequate, accusing President Barack Obama of "insane" and "disgraceful" inaction amid the massacre of 93,000 people.
Meanwhile, fighting around the suburbs of Aleppo was reported yesterday to be "at its most violent in months", according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. (© Daily Telegraph, London)