The Obama administration’s decision to provide military support to the Syrian opposition is a timely one that will help create “a level playing field” in the war against Bashar Assad’s regime, senior Turkish officials said on Friday.
“The White House declaration … makes us very happy,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said at a meeting hosted by the Middle East Institute in Washington.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry denounced as “a caravan of lies” the White House’s declaration that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition many times in the past year.
Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Advisor for strategic communications, said on Thursday that the Obama administration would respond to the use of chemical weapons by expanding its military support to the Syrian rebels, but he did not detail what weapons would be provided.
The rebels have been outmatched in their fight against Mr. Assad’s army, which is backed by Iranian-supported Hezbollah fighters and armed by Russia.
“Arming the rebels is a good idea because it will create a level playing field for the opposition,” said Volkan Bozkir, chairman of the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
“If we are expecting a positive outcome in Geneva, I think it is very important to send the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime representatives to Geneva even-handed,” he added.
The U.S. and Russia have supported negotiations in Geneva between the Syrian rebels and representatives of the Assad regime. The talks were expected to take place this month, but have been postponed and are now expected in July.
The Assad regime has said that it will participate in the talks, but the rebels have so far refused to attend.
Mr. Atalay said the U.S. military support was important also because of the prevailing point of view that the talks in Geneva may never materialize.
The White House decision to arm the rebels follows a significant military setback for the opposition.
Earlier this month, Syrian troops and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters seized the strategic town of Qusair, situated close to the border with Lebanon and on the road that connects Damascus to Aleppo. The loss of Qusair cut off a key supply route for the rebels.
The U.S. arms shipments are likely to be delivered to the rebels through Turkey or Jordan, or both.
Turkey favors arming the rebels “as long as it produces a democratic outcome in Syria, but that doesn’t mean that Turkey is giving an open cart to this kind of military operations,” said Mr. Bozkir.
The Assad regime has received military support from Russia and the Iran-backed Hezbollah militants.
Turkey helped make the case that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons during the course of the two-year-old civil war in which more than 90,000 people have been killed.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shared evidence of the use of chemical weapons when he met President Obama at the White House on May 16, according to senior Turkish officials.
More than 400,000 Syrian refugees have poured into Turkey since the start of the war.
Mr. Atalay also discussed his government’s recent truce with Kurdish rebels and the ongoing protests in Turkey over the government’s plans to redevelop Istanbul’s Gezi Park.
The protests led to violent clashes between police and protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square that continued for nearly two weeks.
Mr. Erdogan met with groups of protesters on Thursday night and said on Friday that his government would halt the redevelopment plan until a court rules on the issue.
Mr. Atalay said “radical elements” had hijacked what started off as a peaceful protest, but he also faulted the police crackdown on the protesters.
“Some mistake were made,” he said.
Mr. Atalay said he was dismayed by the international media coverage of the protests and said it would be a great injustice to Turkey to conclude that what was happening in Taksim Square is an extension of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movements that are sweeping the region.
“You should not compare it to Tahrir,” he said, referring to the square in Cairo which was the birthplace of the protests that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011.
“If someone says so, they do not know Turkey very well,” he added.