TOKYO – The United Nations should move quickly to assist rebel forces in Syria with arms and funding, and should support a no-fly zone to protect civilians caught in the middle of the country's escalating civil war, Qatar's foreign minister said in an interview Friday.
Khalid Bin Mohammad al-Attiyah said Qatar is providing rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces with food, medicine and clothes. But he denied reports his country is funneling arms to the rebels, and said getting them the heavy arms they need to fight Assad's well-equipped military would require unity from the international community that has not yet materialized.
"If we leave Syria further, we will aggravate the situation more and more," he said. "Fanatics will emerge. ... We should not leave it until a stage where, God forbid, somebody calls for jihad, and then we cannot stop people coming from all directions."
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have led Arab calls for an international effort to arm and assist the rebels. Both are key regional players and are believed to have channels through which they could funnel weapons to the rebels. But al-Attiyah said Qatar is not doing so, directly or indirectly.
"This we cannot do unless we have the blessing of the United Nations or our allies — the U.S.A. or European allies," he said in an interview with The Associated Press during a visit to Tokyo on Friday.
Unified support from the international community has been elusive because fears that more arms thrown into the mix could push Assad to launch even more desperate attacks against his people, or that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists. Further, U.N. Security Council members Russia and China oppose intervention, while the United States has been cautious to take risks ahead of next month's presidential election.
Al-Attiyah said that while the rebel forces remain fractious — his country is set to host a meeting of the Syrian National Council opposition leaders next week — there is enough intelligence to determine which groups should be bolstered.
"I think if the international community, led by the United States, decided that they will supply means of self-defense to the Syrian people, I think with their advanced intelligence, they know who is who by now," he said.
To further protect Syrian civilians, al-Attiyah said, Qatar supports the creation of a buffer or no-fly zone, another idea that has stalled because of fears that the foreign countries called on to enforce it could be drawn into a broader war that would add to regional instability.
In the meantime, he said, arms are already flowing into Syria to prop up Assad.
On Thursday, Turkey said a Syrian passenger jet it forced to land en route from Moscow to Damascus was carrying Russian ammunition and military equipment destined for the Syrian Defense Ministry.
Russia and Syria deny anything illegal was aboard the Airbus A320 intercepted over Turkish airspace late Wednesday.
"The whole world sees who is supplying Syria with weapons," al-Attiyah said.
Associated Press writer Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.