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Assad gains sharpen focus on arming Syrian rebels
by Staff Writers
Washington/Paris (AFP) June 12, 2013

Lebanon army warns it will respond to new Syria raids
Beirut (AFP) June 12, 2013 - Lebanon's army said it will respond immediately to any further cross-border attacks by the Syrian military after a helicopter gunship attacked the eastern town of Arsal on Wednesday.

President Michel Sleiman called the attack "a violation of Lebanon's sovereignty" and said the country has the right to take steps to defend itself and to "submit a complaint" to the UN and the Arab League.

"Army units deployed in the (Arsal) area took the necessary defensive measures to respond immediately to any similar violations," an army statement said in a rare warning against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Earlier on Wednesday, a helicopter raided Arsal, where a majority of residents support the anti-Assad revolt, for the first time in the nearly 27-month conflict.

At 1:30 pm (1030 GMT), "a Syrian helicopter gunship crossed the border... and launched two rockets from a distance at the (Arsal) town centre, injuring one person and causing material damage", the army said.

Sleiman, meanwhile, in a statement said "the repeated strikes on Arsal by Syrian helicopter gunships constitute a violation of Lebanon's sovereignty and its territorial integrity".

The strikes violate "the conventions that regulate relations between the two countries, as well as international treaties, at a time when the Lebanese state is trying to maintain stability and social peace in Lebanon", he added.

The president called on Syria not to repeat the strikes, and said "Lebanon has the right to take the necessary steps to defend its sovereignty... including the right to submit a complaint to the Arab League and the United Nations".

Damascus dominated Lebanon politically and military for 30 years until 2005, and continues to exert significant influence through its allies including the Shiite Hezbollah movement in the Mediterranean country.

Lebanon's poorly equipped army coordinates closely with the Syrian military.

Arsal is sensitive because it is just 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) from the border with Syria.

Experts say it has been used as a conduit for weapons and rebels to enter Syria, while it has also served as a refuge for people fleeing the conflict into Lebanon.

Dozens of people wounded in fighting in the key town of Qusayr -- most of them rebels -- flocked to Arsal for treatment last week as the Syrian army and Hezbollah overran the former insurgent bastion.

Israeli pilots say training for Syria, Lebanon threats
Ramat David Air Base, Israel (AFP) June 12, 2013 - Israeli air force pilots are training daily to meet threats posed by instability in neighbouring Syria and Lebanon, pilots at a base in the north of the Jewish state said on Wednesday.

Daily drills include preparing to counter "the transfer of all kinds of weapons that could lead to terror attacks," Lieutenant Colonel N, who could not reveal his last name, told AFP on a rare visit by journalists to Ramat David air base.

Israel has carried out several air strikes inside Syria this year, which officials say were to preventing shipments of advanced weapons to Israel's arch-foe, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

"The atmosphere is very tense," said N, who commands a squadron of F16 warplanes covering Israel's border with Lebanon and the armistice line between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Syria.

"It's not every day that a country the size of Syria, two minutes' (flight) from our base, goes through a civil war," he said.

N's deputy, Major L, said his squadron felt tensions after recent spillovers of Syria's conflict into the Golan, including Israeli patrols coming under fire from Syrian regime troops.

"These are more tense times, you can feel it," he said.

The advance of Syrian regime forces on opposition strongholds has thrust into the spotlight a fractious debate on whether Western nations should arm the rebels, with no decision yet in sight.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague met in Washington on Wednesday with US Secretary of State John Kerry and made a passionate plea for Europe, the US and its allies to do more for "the innocent victims of war and repression."

"The United Kingdom believes that the situation demands a strong, coordinated, and determined approach by the UK, the US and our allies in Europe and the region," Hague told a joint press conference.

But he and Kerry acknowledged that, despite months of debate, their governments still had nothing new to announce.

Opposition leaders have urged the United States -- manufacturer of some of the world's most powerful weapons -- to end its insistence on providing only non-lethal aid such as communications equipment and night-vision goggles.

Weapons have been pouring into Syria from nations sympathetic to the rebels such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as from countries like Iran and Russia, accused of aiding President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

And the US has been wary of adding more fuel to an already volatile mix, and fearful of sophisticated weaponry falling into extremist hands.

But with the conflict now in its third year and the balance of power on the ground shifting, the rebels say they are outgunned by Assad's heavily-armed forces, and are going up against regime tanks with little more than AK47s.

The surprise fall of Qusayr to regime forces backed by thousands of Hezbollah militants has given new urgency to the debate, with Syrian troops now targeting the country's second city Aleppo.

Hague said Assad "seems to be preparing new assaults, endangering the lives and safety of hundreds of Syrians who are already in desperate need."

And he warned that while diplomatic efforts were focused on achieving a political transition, "we will have to be prepared to do more to save lives, to pressure the Assad regime to negotiate seriously and to prevent the growth of extremism and terrorism if diplomatic efforts are going to succeed."

France on Wednesday urged the international community to help halt the regime's advance.

"We must stop this progression before Aleppo. It is the next target of Hezbollah and of the Iranians," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

"We need to rebalance things because over the past few weeks the troops of Bashar al-Assad and especially Hezbollah and the Iranians, along with Russian arms, have gained considerable ground."

Amid growing fears Assad may also have unleashed chemical weapons, Kerry said the US administration was meeting "to talk about various balances in this issue right now."

US officials have said that "all options" except sending in troops are on the table as the debate on how best to help the rebels gathers steam.

Assad's choice of weapons "challenges anybody's standards of human behavior and we're going to have to make judgments ourselves about how we're going to be able to help the opposition deal with that," Kerry said.

"People are talking about what further options might be exercised here... but we don't have anything to announce at this moment."

But, asked if he still believed the rebels could win, Kerry replied: "Nobody wins in Syria the way things are going. The people lose and Syria as a country loses."

Amid the frantic diplomatic efforts, Syria is also likely to dominate next week's G8 summit to be held in Northern Ireland.

On Tuesday, France's foreign ministry warned the conflict, in which an estimated 94,000 people have died, was at a "turning point".

"What should we do under these conditions to reinforce the opposition armed forces? We have had these discussions with our partners, with the Americans, the Saudis, the Turks, many others," said ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot.

"We cannot leave the opposition in the current state."

The European Union, under pressure from London and Paris, last month failed to renew an arms embargo on Syria, leaving individual member states free from August 1 to supply weapons to the opposition if they decide to do so.

Fabius said France had not yet decided what to do after the deadline.

Meanwhile, nations backing the Syrian opposition are due to hold talks meet Saturday with the military chief of the rebel forces, Salim Idriss, in Turkey.


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