DOHA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that Washington was increasingly confident that weapons being sent to the Syrian opposition by other countries were going to moderate forces.
Kerry, on his first overseas tour since taking office, said at a news conference in Doha that he had held talks with nations in the region to discuss the kinds of arms being sent to the different Syrian opposition forces.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are widely believed to be providing weapons to the rebels, but the United States says it does not wish to send arms for fear they may find their way to Islamist hardliners who might then use them against Western targets.
“We had a discussion about the types of weapons that are being transferred,” Kerry said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Sheikh Hammad bin Jassim al-Thani of Qatar, the last stop on a nine-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East.
Referring to the supply of weapons, he said, “We did discuss the question of the ability to try to guarantee that it’s going to the right people and to the moderate Syrian opposition coalition and I think it’s really in the last months that that has developed as a capacity that we have greater confidence in.”
Some 70,000 people have been killed in Syria and nearly a million have fled the country in a two-year uprising, the United Nations says.
The conflict began two years ago as peaceful protests that turned violent when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tried to crush the revolt.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar share the West’s alarm at the rise of al Qaeda-aligned groups in Syria, and say the answer is for outsiders such as themselves to be more involved in backing rebels there.
The two Gulf Arab states have argued that building ties through aid to favoured opposition groups is the only way to ensure that other, hardline Islamist factions are sidelined.
QATARI: PEACE PROCESS MAY BE “DEAD”
Kerry said the United States could take other actions if Assad does not choose to give way peacefully, a possibility that seems remote after two years of fierce fighting.
In Rome on Thursday, Kerry announced that the United States would shift policy to provide medical supplies and food directly to opposition fighters, an option it had previously rejected.
U.S. President Barack Obama so far has not been willing to provide arms directly to the rebels.
“The president’s purpose here ... is to try to minimize the killings, to try to end the (war), end the violence,” he said.
“It’s the president’s judgment for the moment that we would like to see whether or not President Assad shares that view and would like to in fact save his country ... through a peaceful process,” he added. “There are lots of options that remain if in the days or weeks or whatever that opportunity is not taken.”
Speaking at the news conference, the Qatari prime minister suggested that the U.S. opposition to arming the rebels might be softening, though he provided no details.
“There is a change in the international position and the American position in this regard. They are talking about weapons,” he said through an interpreter. “We (had) hoped that this (would have) happened some time ago, before, because this would have maybe lessened the death and destruction.”
The prime minister also pressed Kerry and Obama in unusually blunt terms to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which collapsed in 2010.
“We talked about the peace process, which is at a standstill now or maybe even dead for all intents and purposes,” the prime minister said. “We hope that there will be some real movement by the main sponsor, and that is the United States of America.”
Sheik Hammad bin Jassim said he had felt optimistic about the peace process when Obama came into office in 2009 but suggested those hopes had waned.
“Now the peace process is just a process, it is not a solution, or a final solution, for this crisis,” he said.
“Now the peace process is just a process, it is not a solution or a final solution for this crisis. We hope this dossier will be a priority now for the U.S. administration and your Excellency will take personal (interest) in this.”
Writing by Sami Aboudi, William Maclean and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Michael Roddy