U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set later this week to launch a new diplomatic drive aimed at ending the bloodshed in Syria, making visits to Saudi Arabia and Turkey as Damascus complained to the United Nations that armed “terrorist groups” in Syria have been receiving weapons from supporters in Lebanon and other states along the Syrian border.
Clinton will meet in Riyadh with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal as well as foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia’s five Gulf Arab neighbors, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.
The chief U.S. diplomat’s talks are set for Friday and Saturday, just before she attends the second “Friends of the Syrian People” meeting Sunday in Istanbul that will draw not just Arab delegates but also those from Turkey and Western powers, according to AFP.
The disparate Syrian opposition is expected to attend, just as they did when the first such conference was held in Tunis last month.
Saudi Arabia and its neighbor Qatar have called for arming the Syrian opposition, but the United States and Turkey now agree on the need to send “non-lethal” aid to Syrian rebels, including communications equipment.
Clinton to hold talks in Riyadh
In Riyadh, Clinton will attend the first ministerial meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. strategic cooperation forum, which is likely to also raise the perceived threat from Iran across the Gulf.
The council known as the GCC is composed of heavyweight Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
“She will discuss the full range of bilateral and regional issues, including ongoing security cooperation in the region, as well as the international community’s continuing efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria,” Nuland said.
Repeating an announcement she made last week, Nuland said Clinton will later Saturday travel to the Turkish city of Istanbul to attend the second meeting of the “Friends of the Syrian People.”
The meeting will build on efforts in Tunis last month to end the violence, enable the delivery of humanitarian aid and launch a democratic process aimed at replacing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to Nuland.
Clinton will also meet one-on-one with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and other foreign leaders, the statement said.
During talks in Seoul on Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed the Istanbul talks should work on furnishing communications equipment and medical supplies to the rebels, a U.S. official said.
The rebels are badly outgunned by Syria’s armed forces but the White House has said that it does not favor arming them, arguing that further “militarizing” the conflict would worsen civilian bloodshed.
The Obama administration appears to fear that any weapons sent to Syria would be at risk of falling into the wrong hands, and does not appear to have full confidence in rebel groups or a clear picture of their makeup.
Syria complains to U.N.
Meanwhile, Damascus said in a complaint to the United Nations released on Monday that armed “terrorist groups” in Syria have been receiving weapons from supporters in Lebanon and other states along the Syrian border.
“Experts, officials and observers are unanimous that weapons are being smuggled into Syrian territory from bordering States, including Lebanon,” Syria’s U.N. ambassador Bashar Jaafari said in a letter sent last week to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
He said there had been multiple “confiscations of weapons, explosives and explosive devices smuggled from Lebanon to Syria by certain Lebanese political forces linked to terrorist groups funded and armed from abroad.”
He gave no details about which countries or “Lebanese political forces” were arming and funding Syrian rebels.
Damascus has repeatedly described armed opposition fighters determined to topple Assad as terrorists.
Iraq said last month it had reinforced security along its Syrian border to prevent arms smuggling, after reports fighters and weapons were crossing into Syria to help in the fight against Assad’s army and security forces.
Lebanon has had a complicated relationship with Syria, which continues to exercise some influence over its neighbor despite the 2005 departure of thousands of Syrian troops and intelligence operatives from Lebanese soil.
Jaafari’s letter was a response to Ban’s latest report to the U.N. Security Council on Lebanon, which said that the Syrian conflict “could have negative ramifications for the stability of Lebanon.”
Ban’s report said, “Syrian security forces have continued to carry out operations along the Syrian-Lebanese border, part of which has been mined in recent months.” It also said that there have been cross-border incidents that led to civilian deaths and injuries in Lebanon.
Jaafari said the issue of “so-called Syrian refugees is, to a large extent, a fabricated one.” Ban’s report on Lebanon said that as of Jan. 27, 2012, over 6,000 displaced Syrians who fled the bloodshed at home had sought refuge in Lebanon.
“There are, however, terrorist groups that flee to neighboring States claiming to be innocent refugees who have been attacked by the security forces,” Jaafari said.
There are now over 16,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
The Syrian envoy said any suggestion that Syria's internal turmoil was having any impact on Lebanon was part of a campaign intended to the discredit the Syrian leadership. He also made clear that Damascus was unhappy about Western journalists defying the Syrian ban on foreign reporters.
“The infiltration of French, American and British journalists over the border from Lebanon into Syria must be condemned, as it violates the sovereignty of Lebanon and Syria alike,” Jaafari said.