Fears grow as Assad gains ground

European leaders revisit British plan for direct assistance as rebels remain split over leader

President Bashar al-Assad has made such significant military gains that arming rebels directly has become a matter of urgency, according to British sources.

Recent military victories have severed rebel supply and retreat routes, allowing the regime to plan a major push to crush divided opposition forces, a senior British security source told the Daily Telegraph.

"The Syrian opposition is doing badly and there is a risk of [further] defeats, although Assad cannot ultimately win," the source said.

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) met in Istanbul yesterday in a further attempt to create a unified opposition. But it is badly split over a choice of leader, a choice of interim prime minister, and whether or not to take part in a peace conference planned for Geneva next month.

The conference would take place a year after a transition plan was first agreed by international powers in the Swiss capital, only to be ignored as civil war spread.

The SNC acknowledged but showed no signs of accepting a proposal by the outgoing leader, Moaz al-Khatib, for Assad to hand over power to his Vice-President, who would oversee a 100-day transition.

The regime would be unlikely to accept this deal at present, partly because it feels it has the diplomatic as well as military impetus. It retains the support of Russia at the United Nations, while Iran and Hizbollah are providing substantial armed assistance.

"There is a danger that Assad will go for a big military push in the run-up to Geneva 2 to create facts on the ground that shift the balance of negotiations," the source said. "We have seen this in past conflicts."

The German intelligence agency, Bundesnachrichtendienst, has warned its Government that Assad's military "is more stable than it has been in a long time and is capable of undertaking successful operations against rebel units at will", according to Der Spiegel magazine.

Similarly to the British assessment, it believes that the President cannot recapture all of the country that he has lost, but thinks he can control the south and that after all that has happened "not losing is winning" for Assad.

Amid the growing concerns, John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, has made a series of personal telephone calls to European Union countries, including Germany, urging them to drop their opposition to Britain's plan to lift legal restrictions on arming the rebels.

European diplomats reported that following ambassadorial talks in Brussels yesterday the consensus was moving Britain's way, with the support of France, Italy and Spain for lifting the embargo and Germany taking a neutral position. Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden remained opposed.

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