WASHINGTON - Rebel forces need weapons that could "neutralize" aerial raids by Syrian President Bashar Assad's air force in order to change the balance of power on the ground and pave the way for a political solution to the crisis, a key Syrian opposition leader said Wednesday.
Ahmad al-Jarba, president of Syria's main opposition bloc, spoke in Washington on the day that rebel forces surrendered the important stronghold of Homs. He said the war is not about gaining or losing a city, but about the whole conflict, which has lasted more than three years.
Rebels have been asking the U.S. for lethal aid for some time, but the Obama administration has refused, fearing it could fall into the hands of terrorists and other militants who have joined the battle but remain outside the opposition forces.
Al-Jarba, who plans to meet with President Barack Obama during his visit and meets with Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday, thanked the U.S. for its humanitarian aid and political support at the United Nations. He said the Syrian people do not want the U.S. or other countries to send troops or warships, but that opposition forces need weapons that could effectively "neutralize the air force."
He called the crisis in Syria "the most dramatic human catastrophe in our modern time" and a tragic "calamity being played out by Assad and his cronies."
"The crisis has become more (than) we Syrians can handle," said al-Jarba, who spoke through a translator at the United States Institute of Peace.
He said that even if the opposition completely controlled Homs, no one would be secure because of Assad's air raids.State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki would not specifically address al-Jarba's plea for anti-aircraft weapons.
"We remain committed to continuing to build the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition," she said. "As we've consistently said, we're not going to detail every element of that assistance. We're certainly aware of their comments. We're working closely with the international community."
On Wednesday, hundreds of Syrian rebels left their last remaining bastions in the heart of the western city of Homs under a ceasefire deal with government forces. The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians, a major win for Assad, marked a de facto end of the rebellion in one of the first places to rise up against Assad's rule.
The deal solidifies the government's hold on territory in central Syria that links the capital, Damascus, with government strongholds along the coast and gives government forces a place to stage a fight against rebel territory further north. Politically, gains on the ground boost Assad's hold on power as he seeks to add a further claim of legitimacy in presidential elections set for June 3.
Al-Jarba's trip to Washington comes as the Obama administration is boosting its support for the Syrian Opposition Council. The State Department announced Monday that it would give the opposition's offices in Washington and New York formal diplomatic status and increase nonlethal assistance to the opposition by $27 million. The administration recognized the opposition council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in December 2012, but its U.S. offices had been recognized only as informal liaison bureaus until this week.
The administration is considering taking additional steps in the coming days, including the possibility of levying new sanctions on the Assad government before the June elections.
U.S. sanctions on Assad and his associates have had little impact in stemming the bloody civil war that has stretched into a fourth year. More than 150,000 people have been killed in the clashes between rebels and forces loyal to Assad, with millions of others displaced by the war.
The White House has denounced the upcoming Syrian elections as a farce aimed at giving Assad the veneer of legitimacy. Assad has ruled Syria since 2000, when he took over from his late father.
Al-Jarba said the international community must take a strong stance now against Assad, whom he depicted as a "blood-thirsty tyrant." Assad should not be allowed to run for re-election "over the dead bodies of Syrians."
He compared Assad's rule to that of North Korea's, saying the two are the only ones in this century that have practiced "the worst kind of dictatorship against their own people."
"For God's sake, have you ever heard of a ruler" who would bombard his own people with bombs, chemical weapons and torture detainees in prison? he asked. "We have experienced all that in Syria."
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