- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2012

A major Syrian opposition group has said Western and Arab officials must allow individual countries to arm forces fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

The Syrian National Council said that if Mr. Assad does not end his violent crackdown on an 11-month-old anti-government uprising, the international community “should not constrain individual countries from aiding the Syrian opposition by means of military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves.”

The U.S. and its European allies have not publicly endorsed arming the Syrian opposition fighters. However, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said this would be an “excellent idea.”

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, also said that weapons, tactical intelligence, communications equipment, financing, and medical supplies should be provided to the opposition.

U.S. and European sanctions prevent military aid to Syria.

The Assad regime on Saturday continued to ignore international calls to end the violence.

Syrian forces kept up their bombardment of neighborhoods in the western city of Homs, a hotbed of the revolution. The city has been under siege since Feb. 4. Seventeen people, including children, were killed on Saturday, according to Sami Ibrahim, a Homs-based spokesman for the Syrian Network of Human Rights.

The Assad regime’s forces prevented an International Committee of the Red Cross team from entering the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs. A Syrian Red Crescent team, however, has been allowed to evacuate 17 critically wounded persons since Friday. It was not clear where these people had been taken.

Two Western journalists who were wounded in an attack in the Baba Amr neighborhood earlier this week refused to leave with the Syrian Red Crescent.

“The journalists refused to go with the Red Crescent because everybody in Syria knows the Red Crescent follows the orders of the regime’s security forces,” Mr. Ibrahim said in an Internet phone interview on Saturday.

“They said they will only leave with all of the other injured,” he added.

Photographer Paul Conroy with London’s Sunday Times newspaper and Edith Bouvier, a reporter with France’s Le Figaro newspaper, were injured in the attack that killed American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik. In an Internet video earlier this week, Ms. Bouvier asked to be evacuated for emergency surgery on her leg.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry accused “armed gangs” of obstructing the evacuation of the wounded and refusing to hand over the bodies of the two dead journalists.

The Local Coordination Committees in Syria, an opposition group that organizes demonstrations and documents human rights violations in the country, denied the accusation. It said the regime had blocked access to humanitarian aid and prevented evacuations.

In Homs, residents questioned the timing and intent of the Red Cross mission.

“We have been shelled for 22 days, but they only came after the journalists were attacked. And they came with just 11 small vans and no medical or food aid,” Mr. Ibrahim said.

“People want to know, how will they evacuate 1,300 to 1,800 wounded people in 11 vans,” he added.

The Red Cross has said a ceasefire is necessary for it to begin its humanitarian mission. It is negotiating with Syrian authorities and the opposition for a two-hour daily halt in the fighting.

“What we want is an immediate halt in the fighting so we can access Homs and the other affected areas to deliver much needed humanitarian aid,” said Carla Haddad, a Red Cross spokesperson.

The regime’s forces have destroyed the water supply in Homs forcing residents to drink rainwater and melted snow. Food supplies are also critically low.

“The regime wants to kill people not just by shelling, but by cutting off their food and water,” Mr. Ibrahim said.

In Baba Amr, the only field hospital has run out of basic supplies and its two doctors have been overwhelmed by the large number of wounded people.

The Syrian National Council has sought the creation of humanitarian corridors to transport food and medical aid to the areas most affected by the violence. It has also asked for “safe zones” to be set up so civilians can take shelter.

Western and Arab diplomats at a “Friends of Syria” meeting in the Tunisian capital Tunis on Friday agreed to tighten sanctions on the regime. They also recognized the Syrian National Council as “a legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.

More than 5,400 people have been killed in the violence in Syria since March, according to a United Nations estimate in early January. The U.N. has since stopped estimating the death toll citing the confusion on the ground.