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US, UK pledge support for Syrian opposition

US President Barack Obama and Britain''s Prime Minister David Cameron shake hands as they conclude a joint news conference at the White House in Washington yesterday.
President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron reading from same page

WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron found common ground yesterday in the White House, pledging at joint press conference their countries’ support for the moderate opposition in Syria and vowing to bring the Syrian government and rebels to the negotiating table in the coming weeks.

But even as they backed a joint US-Russian effort to seek a diplomatic solution in Syria, Obama cited an array of obstacles to a credible peace process, including the involvement of Iran, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in the two-year-old conflict. With Syria’s factional and sectarian hatreds more entrenched than ever and President Bashar al-Assad showing no sign of a willingness to give up power, it is far from clear whether the warring sides are ready to talk.

“If, in fact, we can broker a peaceful political transition that leads to Assad’s departure, but a state in Syria that is still intact, that accommodates the interest of all the ethnic groups, all the religious groups inside of Syria, and that ends the bloodshed, stabilizes the situation, that’s not just going to be good for us, that’ll be good for everybody,” Obama said.

Obama said the US would keep increasing pressure on Assad to stop the “appalling violence” in Syrian and, when questioned over the possible use of chemical weapons, he declared the US was still investigating. “We will continue to work to establish the facts around the use of chemical weapons in Syria and those facts will help guide our next steps,” Obama said, standing alongside Cameron.

Cameron said he saw an “urgent window of opportunity” before “worst fears” in Syria would be realized, and said Britain would double its non-lethal support to Syrian opposition forces in the coming year. The British PM said he had not made a decision to arm the opposition, but said Britain could do more through technical assistance and other help to the opposition.

“Certainly we haven’t ruled out stepping up action in response to what seems to be happening on the ground,” Cameron said. “The evidence is growing; the lack of room for doubt is shrinking, and I think this is extremely serious.”

The British prime minister announced over US$45 million in humanitarian aid and over US$15 million in non-lethal support for opposition rebels.

Both leaders agreed on the need to keep up pressure on Assad to step aside and make way for a political transition.

‘And that includes bringing together representatives of the regime, and the opposition in Geneva in the coming weeks to agree on a transitional body, which would allow a transfer of power from Assad to this governing body,” Obama said.

UN CONDEMNS BOMBINGS

The UN Security Council strongly condemned the car bombings in Turkey over the weekend, saying it was crucial “to bring perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism to justice.”

The 15-member Security Council urged all states to cooperate with Turkish authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice. Turkey says it has arrested nine people so far, all Turkish citizens and including the alleged mastermind of the attacks.

Turkey, which is home to some 400,000 Syrian refugees from the conflict, blamed the bombings on a group with direct links to Syrian intelligence. Damascus has denied any involvement.

A dispute between Russia, a close ally of Assad, and the United States over how to end Syria’s two-year war has left the Security Council paralyzed to act. Russia has been backing and arming Assad, while the United States and Europe have supported the opposition with what they say is non-lethal aid and called for Assad’s departure.

A Syrian opposition group says the toll from two years of civil war had risen to at least 82,000 dead and 12,500 missing. Five million people have fled their homes, including 1.4 million refugees in nearby countries, the United Nations says.

FRAGMENTED REBELS

Syria’s rebels are fragmented into “hundreds” of armed groups who control swathes of the north, while government forces appear to have consolidated their hold on Damascus, a senior Red Cross official said yesterday.

Marianne Gasser, who left Syria 10 days ago after completing a term as head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team there, said many opposition groups were fractured and fragmented.

Gasser’s account of the situation on the ground is a rare independent assessment.

Herald with AP, Bloomberg, Reuters

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