At least 600 Russians and Europeans are fighting alongside the rebels battling the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin said during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
“It is known that there are at least 600 people from Russia and Europe fighting along with opposition forces in Syria,” Putin said during the Forum’s plenary session.
Putin reiterated that weapon supplies to the Syrian rebels violate international law, and threaten to further destabilize the war-torn state.
“Why supply weapons to militant forces in Syria when we are not sure of the composition of these groups?” he said, adding that it remains unclear where these arms will end up.
“If the United States … recognizes one of the key Syrian opposition organizations, al-Nusra, as terrorist … how can one deliver arms to those opposition members?” Putin said. “Where will (those weapons) end up? What role will they play?”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has also criticized the supply of arms to the rebels in separate remarks to AP and Bloomberg: “The problem is that the weapons are coming to the region anyway,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.
“And if you take, you know, stock of what is being used by the opposition you would find a lot of arms shipped by the West, including the US, to the Gulf countries and to other countries in the region,” he said. “So, this smuggling continues and this is very dangerous. Because the leading opposition force on the ground is very extremist.”
Putin’s remarks echo a statement made by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls earlier in June, when he said that more than 600 European nationals, including 120 from France, are fighting in Syria.
At the time, Russia said that around 200 of its citizens were fighting in Syria alongside rebel militants as part of a self-proclaimed ‘Caucasus Emirate’ under the flag of Al Qaeda, and that there were “various organizations affiliated with it.”
In Spain, at least eight people allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda were arrested in Ceuta on suspicion of recruiting jihadi fighters to go to Syria, and elsewhere.
Prior to that, Belgium announced in April it had detained the leader of Sharia4Belgium, radical Salafist organization that was allegedly recruiting volunteers to fight in the Syrian civil war.
Britain was one the first Western countries to raise concerns over European Muslims joining the Syrian rebels. The Home Office voiced fears that scores of UK citizens fighting in Syria may use their military know-how to wreak havoc when they return home, and carry out terror attacks.
However, despite these concerns, EU governments agreed to not extend the arms embargo on Syria, effectively allowing them to supply the Syrian opposition with weapons.
Russia slammed the move, but in response was criticized for its contract to deliver advanced S-300 long-range air defense systems to Damascus. Moscow maintains that all arms supplies to Syria are being carried out under a contract signed with the country several years ago.
“Russia, in the framework of existing international law, in open and transparent contracts, supplies weaponry to the current and the legitimate government of Syria,” Putin said at the Economic Forum.
CIA and the US military operatives train rebels in Turkey and Jordan
The CIA and US special operational troops and have been secretly training Syrian rebels at bases in Jordan and Turkey since November 2012. Up to 100 from all over Syria have gone through courses in the last month alone, according to US media reports.
At the two-week courses trainees are taught to use Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter anti-tank rifles, anti-tank missiles, as well as 23-millimeter anti-aircraft weapons, Los Angeles Times reported citing anonymous US officials and rebel commanders.
One of such US covert training session, conducted by American, Jordanian and French, has allegedly been taking place in Jordan for the last month or so, the newspaper cited Brig. Gen. Yahya Bittar, the head of intelligence for the Free Syrian Army.
The exact number of rebels given instruction in both countries since the training began at a new American base in southwest Jordan could not be determined. But according to a different rebel commander the training in Jordan involves 20 to 45 insurgents at a time.
The training reportedly started months before President Obama approved sending arms to anti-Assad rebels for the first time in mid-June. The secret courses have involved fighters from the Free Syrian Army, according to US official, who spoke to the newspaper anonymously. They have been selected when US military set up supply lines to provide nonlethal assistance to rebels, according to the official.
So far, about 100 rebels from Dara have attended four courses, while rebels from Damascus have attended three courses, according to a rebel commander in the Syrian province of Dara.
“Those from the CIA, we would sit and talk with them during breaks from training and afterward, they would try to get information on the situation inside” Syria, said the commander, who helps oversee weapons acquisitions.
Graduates are sent back across the border to re-join the fight, Brig. Gen. Bittar said.
The rebels have been promised supplies of armor-piercing anti-tank weapons and other arms to resist President Assad’s army, the Dara commander said. Since last year, the weapons sent through the Dara military council, apparently from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, have included four or five Russian-made heavy Concourse anti-tank missiles, 18 14.5-millimeter guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks and 30 82-millimeter recoilless rifles, the commander told the newspaper.
“I’m telling you, this amount of weapons, once they are spread across the province [of Dara] is considered nothing,” the rebel commander was quoted as saying. “We need more than this to tip the balance or for there to even be a balance of power.”
The White House and CIA officials have declined to comment on the alleged training programs while other US officials have confirmed the training, though disputed details provided by rebels.
President Obama has announced that some 700 combat-ready troops have stayed behind in Jordan at the request of the Jordanian government.
The troops will remain until the security situation stabilizes. “This detachment that participated in the exercise and remained in Jordan includes Patriot missile systems, fighter aircraft, and related support, command, control, and communications personnel and systems,” Obama was quoted by Reuters.
More backdoor US aid?
Jordan and Turkey also appeared in another recent report by the Washington Post citing US officials said that CIA is preparing to deliver arms to rebel groups in Syria through its bases in these two countries.
“The bases are expected to begin conveying limited shipments of weapons and ammunition within weeks,” the report read.
“We have relationships today in Syria that we didn’t have six months ago,” the WP quoted Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, as saying.
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels have confirmed the shipment of new weapons from “friendly countries” to battle the government forces, according to spokesman for the opposition fighters, Loay Al Mikdad. The shipment, the representative assured, did not come from the US. Earlier this month the Associated Press also learned that the Gulf States delivered new anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles to the opposition.
The surge in weapons shipments follows US claims earlier in June that it had strong evidence that the government has used chemical weapons against opposition forces contrary to an earlier finding the UN in May, with lead investigator Carla Del Ponte concluding that the rebels were behind at least one chemical weapons attack.
Following the announcement, US officials claimed that President Obama authorized sending weapons to Syrian rebels, without providing much detail.
The Syrian insurgent are awaiting the US shipment. “We believe that the United States will implement its commitments to us very soon,” Al Mikdad said on Friday.
Speaking at the Russian economic forum on Friday, President Vladimir Putin has once again said that the West should not arm the rebels because they include “terrorist” groups.
“If the United States … recognizes one of the key Syrian opposition organizations, al-Nusra, as terrorist … how can one deliver arms to those opposition members?” Putin said, adding “where will (those weapons) end up? What role will they play?”
“It’s clear that without deliveries from abroad, what is happening in Syria now would simply be impossible. Money is going in, weapons are going in, and well trained armed groups are going in,” Putin said.
The escalation of tension around the Syrian conflict coincides with an international effort, agreed by US and Russia in May to bring all parties and major regional player to the negotiating table. The date for the Geneva 2 conference has not been set. But in light of recent developments Russia is beginning to doubt US intentions.
“The [West’s] message the opposition is getting: ‘Guys, don’t go to Geneva. Don’t say that you are going to negotiate with the regime. Soon things will change in your favor,’” Russia’s FM Sergey Lavrov told Bloomberg on Friday. “So, that’s what we want to clarify. It’s either the conference or the instigation of the opposition not to be flexible. I don’t think it’s possible to do both at the same time.”
2) – RT.com – 21/6/2013