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'Friends of Syria' hold Doha talks on arming rebels

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Foreign ministers of governments that support the Syrian opposition held talks in Qatar on Saturday on boosting their assistance after rebels hailed recent deliveries of new types of weaponry.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose government announced earlier this month that it was ready to start arming the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), was among the top diplomats attending the "Friends of Syria" meeting.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was also taking part, said his government had yet to take a decision on whether to provide arms as well as non-lethal equipment to the rebels.

"On the much debated question of whether we should give lethal aid of any kind to the Syrian opposition, the position remains the same -- we have taken no decision to do that," he told reporters as ministers gathered.

The Doha meeting began behind closed doors, without an official opening, delegates said.

Ahead of the talks, an FSA spokesman told AFP it had new types of weaponry that could give it the edge in the 27-month conflict.

"We've received quantities of new types of weapons, including some that we asked for and that we believe will change the course of the battle on the ground," Louay Muqdad said.

"We have begun distributing them on the front lines, they will be in the hands of professional officers and FSA fighters," he said, without saying who supplied them.

Senior opposition figure Burhan Ghalioun said the FSA had recently received "sophisticated weapons", including "an anti-aircraft defence system".

Washington said earlier this month that it would provide arms to the rebels in response to intelligence assessments that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had made limited use of its chemical weapons stockpiles.

But US officials have not specified what types of weapons Washington is prepared to deliver.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Friday that the CIA and US special forces have been training Syrian rebels for months, including in the use of coveted anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

Top diplomats from Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates were also taking part in the talks.

"The goal of the meeting is to be very concrete about the importance of every kind of assistance that's coming from the London 11 countries (Friends of Syria)... being fully coordinated and going through only the Syrian opposition coalition," a US official said.

The official called the Qatar meeting critical as the opposition National Coalition assesses its leadership amid concerns in Washington that fighters battling Assad lack cohesion and direction.

"This is all in support of energising, re-energising, the Syrian opposition coalition leadership to work to select its leadership," the official said on condition of anonymity.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the meeting would address how to coordinate Western aid.

"We will try in Doha to sum up the situation on the ground and to see how we can aid the opposition coalition and arrive at a political solution," he said.

France and Britain have pushed for arming the rebels but underscored that this must be done responsibly to avoid the kind of anarchy that followed the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Ministers were also expected to discuss a joint Russian and US proposal for a Syrian peace conference.

Damascus officials have said they are ready to attend. Opposition leaders have said any peace conference must lead to Assad's departure.

Hague said Britain was committed to trying to make sure any peace conference was a success.

"At the end, there is only a political solution for the conflict," he said. "We want to see a successful conference in Geneva."

Arab and Western assistance to the rebels has taken on new urgency after loyalist forces made key gains on the battlefield in recent weeks with support from Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah group.

They have retaken the strategic central town of Qusayr near the Lebanese border and are trying to oust rebels fighters from footholds around Damascus which they have used as launchpads for attacks inside the capital.

The army on Saturday pressed a fierce assault launched four days ago against rebel areas in northern and eastern Damascus, killing three children with mortar fire, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130622/friends-syria-hold-doha-talks-arming-rebels