Syrian opposition head expects advanced weapons to reach rebels

ISTANBUL Mon Jul 8, 2013 1:58am BST

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The new president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition said on Sunday he expected advanced weapons supplied by Saudi Arabia to reach rebel fighters soon and change their military situation, which he described as weak.

Ahmad Jarba, who has close links to Saudi Arabia, told Reuters in the first interview since he was elected president of the coalition on Saturday that the opposition will not go to a proposed peace conference in Geneva sponsored by the United States and Russia unless its military position becomes strong.

"Geneva in these circumstances is not possible. If we are going to go to Geneva we have to be strong on the ground, unlike the situation now, which is weak," Jarba said after returning from the northern Syrian province of Idlib, where he met commanders of rebel brigades.

Asked if shoulder-fired weapons that could blunt President Bashar al-Assad's massive advantage in armour would reach the rebels after Saudi Arabia took a lead role in supporting the opposition in recent weeks, Jarba said: "We are pushing in this direction."

"I think the situation is better than before. I think these weapons will arrive to Syria soon," he said.

"My priority (is) to secure two-tier support for the Syrian people: military and humanitarian. We are working on getting advanced and medium-range weapons to the Free Syrian army and the liberated areas," he added.

Jarba offered Assad's forces a truce for the duration of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on Tuesday, to stop fighting in the besieged city of Homs, where Sunni Muslim rebels face a ferocious ground and air onslaught by Hezbollah-backed troops and militias loyal to Assad.

Homs, 140 kms (88 miles) north of Damascus, is situated at a strategic crossing linking the capital with army bases in coastal regions controlled by Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated majority Sunni Syria since the 1960s.

The city also links Damascus and the coast with Hezbollah strongholds in neighbouring Lebanon.

"We are staring at a real humanitarian disaster in Homs. Assad, whose military machine was on the verge of defeat, became propped up by Iran and its Hezbollah proxy," Jarba said.

'WILL NOT REST'

"I will not rest until I procure the advanced weapons needed to hit back at Assad and his allies. ... I give myself one month to achieve what I am intent to do," he added.

After meeting a delegation from Homs, Jabra donated $250,000 of his own money to support humanitarian relief efforts in the city. Activists who met Jarba said the remaining rebellious Sunni neighbourhoods in Homs could fall in days.

Jarba was speaking in Istanbul, where he had been elected president of the Syrian National Coalition, which has little physical presence in Syria and little influence over militant Islamist brigades that play a main role in the fight against Assad's forces.

The coalition's meeting this weekend resulted in an overhaul of its leadership and a power shift in favour of a Saudi-backed wing, which defeated in a series of elections a faction effectively headed by Mustafa al-Sabbagh, a businessman who is Qatar's pointman.

Jarba won the presidency with a razor thin-margin in a runoff ballot over Sabbagh. But the Sabbagh faction suffered a rout in elections late on Sunday for a new coalition politburo.

Born in the northeastern province of Hasaka, which is inhabited by Arabs and Kurds, 44-year-old Jarba belongs to Shammar, a large Arab tribe that extends into Saudi Arabia and Iraq. He was a political prisoner for two years in the 1990s.

He was also arrested during the uprising against four decades of family rule by Assad and his late father, which erupted in March 2011. More than 90,000 people since have been killed, making the Syrian revolt the bloodiest of the Arab Spring uprisings against entrenched dictators

(Editing by Ralph Boulton and Will Dunham)

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