BEIRUT (AP) — The commander of the main Western-backed rebel group fighting in Syria said Friday he hoped that U.S. weapons will be in the hands of rebels in the near future, saying it will boost the morale of the fighters on the ground.
The comments by Gen. Salim Idris to Al-Arabiya TV followed a decision by President Barack Obama to authorize sending weapons to Syrian rebels, marking a deepening of U.S. involvement in Syria's two-year civil war.
U.S. officials said the administration could provide the fighters with a range of weapons, including small arms, ammunition, assault rifles and a variety of anti-tank weaponry such as shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and other missiles. However, no final decisions have been made on the type of weaponry or when it would reach the rebels, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity in order to discuss internal administration discussions with reporters.
The decision came a day after the United Nations said nearly 93,000 people have been confirmed dead in Syria's civil war, but the actual number is believed to be much higher.
In addition to the increased military aid, the U.S. also announced Thursday it had conclusive evidence that President Bashar Assad's regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against opposition forces. The White House said multiple chemical attacks last year killed up to 150 people.
Obama has said the use of chemical weapons cross a "red line" triggering greater U.S involvement in the crisis.
"We hope to have the weapons and ammunition that we need in the near future," Idris told Al-Arabiya.
"This will surely reflect positively on the rebels' morale, which is high despite attempts by the regime, Hezbollah and Iran to show that their morale after the fall of Qusair deteriorated," he said, referring to a key town near the Lebanese border.
Assad's forces, aided by fighters from Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah, captured Qusair on June 5, dealing a heavy blow to rebels who had been entrenched in the strategic town for over a year.
Since then, the regime has shifted its attention to recapture other areas in the central Homs province and Aleppo to the north.
The regime's advances have added urgency to U.S. discussions on whether to provide the rebels with weapons.
Russia, a staunch ally of Assad, on Friday disputed the U.S. claim that Syria used chemical weapons against the rebels.
President Vladimir Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, told reporters that the information provided by U.S. officials to Russia "didn't look convincing."
Alexey Pushkov, chairman of Russia's parliamentary foreign affairs committee, wrote on his Twitter account Friday that "the data on Assad's use of chemical weapons were faked in the same place as the lie about (Saddam) Hussein's weapons of mass destruction," referring to the deposed Iraqi dictator.
"Obama is going down the route of G. Bush," he added, in reference to former U.S. President George W. Bush's assertion — never proven, but used to justify the invasion of Iraq — that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said Obama was planning to step up military assistance to Syrian rebels.
Ushakov warned that providing such assistance could derail efforts to convene a Syria peace conference. The main opposition coalition has already said it would not attend, all but scuttling the initiative.
In Friday's violence, Syrian troops and rebels fought some of the heaviest battles in months in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
The U.K-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the clashes were concentrated in the eastern rebel-held neighborhood of Sakhour, calling the fighting "the most violent in months." It said troops attacked the neighborhood from two directions but failed to advance, suffering casualties.
The fight for Aleppo, a city of 3 million that was once a bastion of support for Assad, is critical for both the regime and the opposition. Its fall would give the opposition a major victory with a stronghold in the north near the Turkish border. A rebel defeat would buy Assad more time, at the very least. It could also turn the tide of the civil war against the rebels.
The opposition's Aleppo Media Center said troops bombarded Sakhour with tank shells and rockets before sending in troops. The fighting lasted about four hours, and then warplanes raided rebel positions in Sakhour.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said troops were trying to capture a major intersection in Sakhour that links several major roads in Aleppo including one leading to the city's airport and another to the north.
"It is a strategic area," said Abdul-Rahman. He said large numbers of rebels took part in the fighting.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.