Middle East

Syria’s rebel defense minister steps down

Free Syrian Army fighters run as they fire a self-made rocket towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Bustan al-Basha district in Aleppo May 19, 2014. (REUTERS/Hosam Katan)

BEIRUT: Disappointment with the lack of “serious” backing for Syrian rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad was behind the resignation of the defense minister in the provisional government, senior opposition figures said Monday.

Asaad Mustafa stepped down from his post for the second time, complaining that rebels were being prevented from obtaining “legitimate means of defense” against the firepower wielded by regime forces and their allies.

“The Ministry of Defense has been unable to carry out the minimum level of its duties,” he said, in a resignation letter circulated by pro-opposition media outlets. Mustafa, a former agriculture minister before his defection, said he was reaffirming his original resignation in March and pledged to remain a “soldier in the revolution.”

A vice president of the opposition-in-exile National Coalition also blamed the armed uprising’s foreign backers for Mustafa’s decision.

Farouq Tayfour, from the Muslim Brotherhood, said the “international community has pursued a policy of crisis management in Syria, instead of finding real solutions for the crisis.”

“The decisions that leading countries take with regard to what Syrians are suffering from are symbolic ones, with no value,” Tayfour said.

“The resignation today reveals that the efforts of the countries of the world are not serious.”

Mustafa’s announcement comes as coalition President Ahmad Jarba is expected to hold meetings with French officials in Paris after his visit to Washington last week, where he called for providing rebel groups with “sophisticated” weapons to neutralize the regime’s air power.

Tayfour said that recent decisions by Washington and London to boost the coalition’s diplomatic status were practically useless.

“What does it mean to upgrade the coalition’s diplomatic representation by America and others, when Syrians are facing murder, violations and destruction, via lethal weapons and barrel bombs and even chemical weapons, which the Assad regime does not hesitate in using?” he asked.

While some sources attributed Mustafa’s resignation to an internal power play over his desire to head the provisional government in place of Ahmad Tohme, a political source told The Daily Star said that the move also reflected the lack of clout enjoyed by coalition officials outside the country.“In logistical terms, [military] responsibilities have been taken away from the Defense Ministry, in favor of rebel commanders inside the country,” the source said.

Moderate rebel groups have recently received shipments of TOW anti-tank missiles, reportedly through U.S.-directed channels, and have been using the weapons in battles on more than one front in the war.

Separately, Switzerland’s envoy to the United Nations urged the Security Council to endorse a French draft resolution that would refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.

The news came as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group based in Britain, said the death toll had topped 160,000 people.

Paul Seger circulated a letter urging the referral to the ICC, signed by 58 countries, although it is certain to face opposition from Russia and China, which hold veto power.

The same group of countries urged a similar move in January, but “since then, the conflict has only grown in intensity,” Seger said.

“While several members of the group would prefer a stronger language ... we all share the view that the initiative by France represents the best opportunity to bring at last, three years into the Syrian civil war, the promise of accountability to its war-ravaged people and at the same time to help deter further atrocities,” the letter said.

In the draft resolution, the ICC would be enabled to investigate “crimes committed by the Syrian authorities and pro-government militias, as well as by non-state armed groups,” all committed in the course of the ongoing conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011.”

The French draft is also designed to avoid U.S. sensitivities, since Washington and its ally Israel are not members of the ICC, which they fear could be used to prosecute their nationals.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 20, 2014, on page 1.




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