DOHA/SRINAGAR - Opponents of Syria agreed on Saturday to give urgent military support to Western-backed rebels, aiming to stem a counter-offensive by the government forces backed by Hezbollah fighters.
Recapture of the strategic border town of Qusair, spearheaded by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, and an expected assault on the divided northern city of Aleppo have alarmed supporters of the Syrian opposition.
The U.S. administration has responded by saying, for the first time, it would arm rebels, while Gulf sources say Saudi Arabia has accelerated the delivery of advanced weapons to the rebels over the last week.
Ministers from the 11 core members of the Friends of Syria group, agreed "to provide urgently all the necessary materiel and equipment to the opposition on the ground," according to a statement released at the end of their meeting in Qatar.
The statement did not commit all the countries to send weapons, but said each country could provide assistance "in its own way, in order to enable (the rebels) to counter brutal attacks by the regime and its allies".
The aid is being channeled through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council. Several Islamist radicals including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front are fighting side by side with Supreme Council to topple the Damascus government considered to be part of anti-Israeli axis-of resistance that includes Iran and Hezbollah.
Ministers from the Friends group - which includes Western and Arab states as well as Turkey - also condemned "the intervention of Hezbollah and fighters from Iran and Iraq", demanding they withdraw immediately.
As well as fighting in Qusair, Hezbollah is deployed alongside Iraqi fighters around the Shia holy shrine of Sayyida Zainab, south of Damascus, while Iranian military commanders are believed to be advising Assad's officers on counter-insurgency.
Muslim fighters have erected a ring of protection around the shrine of lady Zainab, the grand-daughter of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) after rebels made several attempts to attack it.
SAUDI SPEEDS UP SUPPORT
Reuters meanwhile reported that Saudi Arabia, which started supplying anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels on a small scale two months ago, had accelerated delivery of sophisticated weaponry.
"In the past week there have been more arrivals of these advanced weapons. They are getting them more frequently," one source said, without giving details. Another Gulf source described them as "potentially balance-tipping" supplies.
French military advisers are already training the rebels to use some of the new equipment in Turkey and Jordan, sources familiar with the training programs said. U.S. forces have been carrying out similar training, rebels say.
A French diplomatic source said Paris would increase non-lethal aid such as communications equipment, gas masks, night vision goggles and bullet proof vests. It would also provide assistance with military strategy and battlefield intelligence.
"All this has already started," a Western source said. "Broadly speaking, Western nations will do this, while Gulf Arab nations will deliver the weapons. It's a division of roles.
"If the northern front receives enough material and non-material support quickly, it could soon be equivalent to thousands of men, or even tens of thousands," the source added.
The increasingly sectarian dynamic of the war pits mainly Sunni rebels against forces loyal to Assad - who is backed by Shia Iran - and has split the Middle East along Sunni-Shia lines.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Hezbollah's role transformed the conflict "into a much more volatile, potentially explosive situation that could involve the entire region".
"Hezbollah is a proxy for Iran, supported by Iran, and obviously Hezbollah has decided to become involved in this in a very, very significant way," he said, declining to give details about what weapons Washington might provide to Syria.
Tehran, which says it supports Assad economically and politically, criticized the Doha participants.
"If a meeting leads to weapons being put in the hands of mercenaries and terrorists in Syria, prolonging the killing in Syria and bringing destruction, we are against it," ISNA news agency quoted Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi as saying.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani of Qatar, which along with Saudi Arabia has been one of the most open Arab backers of the anti-Assad rebels, said that supplying them with weapons was the only way to resolve the conflict.
"Force is necessary to achieve justice. And the provision of weapons is the only way to achieve peace in Syria's case," Sheikh Hamad told ministers at the start of the talks.
The meeting in Qatar brought together ministers and senior officials of countries that support the rebels - France, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Britain and the United States - although the fractured Syrian opposition itself was notably absent.
Sheikh Hamad said all but two countries had agreed on the kind of support to provide to the rebels. He did not name the dissenters, but Germany and Italy have both said in the past they oppose arming the rebel brigades. KO Monitoring Desk
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.