US may boost Syria rebels

US and Syria allies may boost rebel support if Assad won’t agree to peace talks.

US and Syria allies may boost rebel support if Assad won’t agree to peace talks. Picture: AFP

BEIRUT - The United States and its allies are ready to increase support for Syria's rebels if President Bashar al-Assad refuses to discuss a political solution to his country's civil war, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday.

Rebels called for reinforcements to combat President Bashar al-Assad's forces, which have launched an offensive in recent days against a strategic town backed by Assad's allies from Lebanon's powerful Shi'ite militia Hezbollah.

The battle has brought the worst fighting in months, and by drawing in Hezbollah militia has raised new fears that a war that has killed 80,000 people could surge across borders and ignite sectarian conflict across the Middle East.

Washington and Moscow are scrambling to revive diplomacy, compelled to step up peace efforts by new reports of atrocities on both sides, suspicions that chemical weapons have been used and the rise of al Qaeda-linked fighters among Assad's foes.

Kerry said several thousand Hezbollah fighters were taking part in the conflict, with active support on the ground from their - and Assad's - main regional backer, Iran.

Forces loyal to Assad had made gains in recent days but those were "very temporary", Kerry told a news conference in Amman before a meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group, made up of Western and regional countries lined up against Assad.

"Just last week, obviously, Hezbollah intervened very, very significantly. There are several thousands of Hezbollah militia forces on the ground in Syria who are contributing to this violence and we condemn that."

Kerry is in Jordan for the "Friends of Syria" meeting seeking support from European and Arab states for the latest peace initiative - a call he issued jointly with Russia for a conference, expected in Geneva in coming weeks.

The United States and Europe have so far shied away from directly arming the rebels but have given them "non-lethal" support, while Arab backers like Qatar and Saudi Arabia send them weapons. Western countries have had to balance their opposition to Assad with their concern that arms for rebels would reach al Qaeda-allied Islamist fighters.

The US-Russian proposal for a peace conference has raised suspicion among Arab countries that Washington is watering down support for Assad's opponents, who had long refused to negotiate unless Assad is excluded from any future settlement.

Russia says talks must include Assad's government and Iran. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised the Syrian government's response to the US-Russian proposal, while saying the opposition was too divided to agree on its participation.