Syria opposition wants ban on government air power

Associated Press
This citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows damages due to heavy fighting between government forces and Free Syrian Army fighters in the old city of Aleppo, Syria, Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)
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BEIRUT (AP) — The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group called Sunday for a ban on the use of ballistic missiles and air power by President Bashar Assad's forces in addition to the prohibition on chemical weapons.

The Syrian National Coalition's statement comes a day after Russia and the United States reached an agreement to secure and destroy the Syrian government's chemical stockpile, averting for now U.S. military strikes against the Assad regime. But the framework deal does not address Syria's broader civil war or the use of conventional weapons, which have been responsible for the vast majority of the more than 100,000 deaths in the conflict.

"Chemical weapons attacks are a part of a bigger scheme of crimes against humanity committed by the Assad regime, including using the Syrian air forces and ballistic missiles on residential areas," the Coalition said in a statement posted on its official website. "The Syrian Coalition insists that the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons, which killed more than 1,400 Syrian civilians, be extended to include the prohibition of the use of air forces and ballistic missiles on residential areas."

While a ban on air power and ballistic missiles would likely curb the bloodshed in some areas, it's unclear how such a measure would be imposed or enforced.

The U.S. accuses the Assad government of carrying out a poison gas attack against rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21 that Washington says killed more than 1,400 people. Other estimates of the death toll are far lower. The Syrian government denies the allegations and blames the rebels.

The suspected chemical attack raised the prospect of U.S.-led punitive military action against Syria. The rebels hoped that foreign missile strikes would tip the balance of power on the ground in their favor. But as the strikes appeared imminent, President Barack Obama abruptly decided to ask Congress for authorization first, delaying any armed response.

Russia then floated the idea of Syria relinquishing its chemical arsenal to avert Western strikes, and the Assad regime quickly agreed. The U.S. and Russia then struck a framework agreement Saturday to secure and destroy Syria's chemical stockpile.

The agreement has won broad backing around the world, including from China, which is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. France also welcomed the deal, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius cautioned during a visit Sunday in Beijing that it was only the "first stage."

In Cairo, the Arab League also approved of the U.S.-Russian deal. Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said the agreement helps move toward a political settlement to the crisis.

"All parties are capable and influential enough to do their part in the U.N. Security Council to ensure a comprehensive cease-fire in Syria ... and to move toward negotiations in Geneva to achieve a peaceful settlement to the Syrian crisis," Elaraby said in a statement.

Germany offered Sunday to help destroy Syrian chemical weapons. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement that Berlin is "prepared to make a technical or financial contribution to the destruction of chemical weapons from Syria." He didn't elaborate, but officials say Germany has helped destroy chemical weapons in Libya and elsewhere in the past.

The Syrian opposition, meanwhile, warned that the Assad regime may just be playing for time and said the threat of force must remain on the table. It added that securing Syria's chemical weapons "must be for achieving justice and bringing the perpetrators of chemical weapons to the international court."

The Coalition also repeated its calls for military aid in order to tip the balance of power on the ground and "force the regime to end its military campaign and accept a political solution that leads to the democratic transformation of Syria."

The U.S. and its allies have balked at sending heavy weapons to the rebels, fearful the arms could land in the hands of extremists who are among the most effective fighters in the opposition ranks. Washington announced plans months ago to deliver some weapons to the opposition, but rebels say they have yet to receive anything.

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Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Cairo and Louise Watt in Beijing contributed to this report.

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