U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry listens to a translation through headphones… (Sedat Suna /European Pressphoto…)
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Divisions between Syrian rebels and their foreign supporters came into focus Saturday as a leading opposition group demanded international military action — including drone strikes — to halt missile attacks and alleged chemical-weapons use against Syrian civilians.
At a meeting intended to smooth differences between the rebels and supporters, the Syrian National Coalition criticized its Western and Middle Eastern backers for failing to stop attacks by President Bashar Assad's forces that it said are imperiling thousands. The group said the backers were capable of detecting planned attacks and halting them before they occur.
"It is the moral imperative of the international community to take specific, precise and immediate action to protect Syrian civilians from the use of ballistic missiles and chemical weapons," the coalition, an umbrella group strongly supported by the Obama administration, said in a statement. "Such ability is well within the reach of a number of members of the Friends of Syria group, yet nothing serious has been done to put an end to such terror and criminality."
The opposition group called on its foreign supporters to use drone aircraft for "surgical" strikes against the launch sites.
The group's backers aren't likely to do what it wants. But the statement underscored the differences in perspective within the anti-Assad alliance, even as its leaders collaborate closely in trying to end a war that has killed an estimated 70,000 people.
Rebel leaders had gathered in Turkey with foreign ministers from 11 countries, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry. U.S. officials have been pushing the rebels to accept a moderate, inclusive approach to negotiations to work out a successor regime.
By the early hours of Sunday, the foreign ministers and the Syrian National Coalition had agreed to statements that called for a negotiated path to a new Syrian order, a rejection of extremism and power sharing among all major ethnic groups. The ministers had also agreed to funnel all military aid through the opposition coalition's Supreme Military Council, a step that could reduce the flow of weapons to suspected extremist groups.
Kerry also announced, as expected, that the United States was sharply increasing its spending on nonlethal military aid for the rebels, to $123 million.
The coalition's statement, however, exposed its different view on ending the regime's threat.
In addition to calling for drone strikes, the coalition demanded that its supporters enforce a no-fly zone along its northern and southern borders to protect refugees, an idea that the Obama administration rejects. The opposition coalition also called for a United Nations resolution condemning Syria for the attacks and proposed an "international fund" to support it and the institutions it is trying to build in areas of Syria outside government control.
The Assad regime has increasingly used ballistic missiles to strike rebel strongholds, and rebels have alleged that the regime has also begun using chemical weapons from its vast stockpile. British and French officials have called on the U.N. to investigate what they believe are credible claims, though U.S. officials say they are not yet convinced that the regime has used the weapons.
The ministers' joint statement referred to the use of chemical weapons as "allegations" but called on the U.N. to investigate them, adding that if the charges proved to be correct "there will be severe consequences."
The rebels contend that the foreign powers have allowed the war to intensify when they could easily provide the opposition with weapons and support to bring it to an end.
But the United States and European countries are moving gradually to build the rebel military capabilities, fearing that a heavier arms flow could intensify the fighting and strengthen the hand of Islamic extremists in the rebel ranks.
Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, said opposition leaders needed to "clearly distance themselves" from terrorist and extremist forces, Reuters reported.
Some rebel leaders objected to Western demands that they cut off Islamist rebels, such as Al Nusra Front, which has been responsible for important battlefield gains. Western leaders "are worried about those who are with this cause, not against it," said one opposition leader, who was unwilling to be identified criticizing the group's supporters.