A vehicle stops at a checkpoint set up by the Free Syrian Army in the neighbourhood of Homs on February 19, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)
Syria's opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) appealed to the "Friends of Syria" on Friday to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army and to support all forms of popular resistance against President Bashar al-Assad.
"If the regime fails to accept the terms of the political initiative outlined by the Arab League and end violence against citizens, the Friends of Syria should not constrain individual countries from aiding the Syrian opposition by means of military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves," the SNC said in a seven-point statement of demands to the international meeting in Tunis.
Arab and Western powers are divided over whether to arm Syria's rebels, with officials concerned that such measures will only worsen the violence and suck in neighbouring countries, with different governments backing different groups.
While the Free Syrian Army, made up mainly of army defectors, has been able to smuggle in weapons and buy them on the black market, Syrian opposition figures attending a meeting of more than 50 nations said there was no formal foreign military support for the opposition so far.
Deputy Arab League Chief Ahmed Ben Helli told Reuters on the eve of the meeting on Thursday that arming the opposition could lead to civil war.
"I think this will complicate matters further. Militarising the opposition and the protests will create a complicated situation that might lead to a civil war and this is not wanted," he said in Tunis.
An Arab official told Reuters on Friday that he did not expect any move to arm the Syrian opposition, given divisions within the movement. Support for the Syrian opposition was likely to be financial, technical and humanitarian, he said.
"Those who want to arm are not waiting for aid," he said.
The question of whether to arm the Syrian opposition has come into focus in recent days after the United States appeared to suggest it would not oppose the arming of the rebels if all diplomatic channels failed.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested on Thursday that Syria's opposition would ultimately arm itself.
Even within the SNC, however, there are fears about what the militarisation of the near-year-long uprising will mean for a country at the heart of the Middle East and party to some of its thorniest conflicts.
"Militarisation has begun in Syria and we are worried about this issue," said senior SNC official Abdel Baset Sieda on the eve of the meeting. "If Syrians lose hope in the U.N. and Arab League this is a dangerous issue and if it drags Syria into civil war it will suck in neighbours."