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WAR REPORT
Syria: West moves toward arming rebels
by Staff Writers
Beirut, Lebanon (UPI) Mar 14, 2013


Talks on lifting Syria arms embargo possible any time: EU
Brussels (AFP) March 14, 2013 - The EU said on Thursday it was possible to hold talks on whether to arm Syrian rebels "without further delay" after France claimed Paris and London were ready to supply the insurgents with weapons, even without the support of their partners.

"If a member state wants to start the discussion without further delay, it is always possible," Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told AFP.

"Any member state can request an item to be put on the agenda of a Council group or meeting," he said after French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris and London might arm Syrian rebels even without unanimous support from the 27-nation European Union.

Speaking at the European Parliament on Wednesday, Ashton said that "on the occasions this year when I have put the arms embargo on the agenda of the foreign affairs council -- with all options to be discussed -- no member state has proposed that it be lifted to arm the opposition."

Fabius told France Info radio that France and Britain will ask "the Europeans now to lift the embargo so that the resistance fighters have the possibility of defending themselves."

He said Paris and London would press for quick new EU talks on the Syria arms embargo, which was extended on February 28 for three months by EU foreign ministers, though such sanctions are always reviewed in case events change.

At the February talks, ministers agreed however to ease the embargo to enable any EU state to provide non-lethal aid or training to the insurgents. Britain quickly pledged armoured vehicles and protective clothing for the opposition.

When the Syria issue came up again at foreign ministers' talks Monday there were wide divisions, many EU nations saying that supplying arms to the opposition would lead to an increase in violence.

Fabius said the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was receiving weapons from Iran and Russia which gave it an edge over the opposition in the two-year conflict.

Germany ready to discuss Syrian arms embargo at EU
Berlin (AFP) March 14, 2013 - Germany said on Thursday it was ready to discuss within the European Union a lifting of the bloc's embargo on arming Syrian rebels after France and Britain backed the move.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle highlighted in a written statement that European sanctions against Syria had been modified two weeks ago in line with the current situation.

But he added: "If important partners in the European Union now see a different situation, which in their view once again makes a change of the sanction decisions necessary, naturally we are ready to discuss it immediately in the EU."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said earlier that Paris and London were seeking to lift the EU embargo to enable them to arm Syrian rebels, arguing that Moscow's supply of weapons to Damascus was giving the regime an unfair edge.

The EU responded saying it was possible to hold talks on whether to arm Syrian rebels "without further delay".

The 27-nation bloc last month amended its embargo to allow member nations to supply "non-lethal" equipment and training to the opposition but stopped short of lifting the ban entirely.

The United States, Britain and France, key powers in the 2011 Libyan intervention that toppled Moammar Gadhafi, are pressing for greater support for rebels battling in Syria to overthrow another Arab dictator, President Bashar Assad.

But Russia, one of Assad's few supporters, has warned that any move to supply rebel forces, primarily the secular Free Syrian Army, will be a major breach of international law.

Moscow has repeatedly blocked U.N. Security Council action that could clear the way for international military intervention. Russia has also provided large amounts of heavy weapons, including helicopter gunships and missiles, to Assad's military and security forces since the Syrian civil war began in March 2011.

After meeting in London with British Foreign Secretary William Hague Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raised the specter of Western-supplied weapons falling into the hands of the Islamist groups who are fighting to topple Assad's minority regime.

But one of the presumed objectives of arming the FSA and other non-Islamist groups is to prevent the Islamist forces -- spearheaded by the increasingly powerful jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra, which Washington deems a terrorist organization -- from elbowing them aside and establishing an Islamist-dominated regime in Damascus.

In recent weeks, the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama has been moving toward a major shift in policy concerning Syria by providing rebels with equipment such as armored personnel carriers, body armor and possibly military training as well.

Amid what appears to be a significant broadening of Washington's "non-lethal support" for insurgent forces in Syria, U.S. Special Forces were reported by Britain's Guardian newspaper Friday to be training "secular elements of the Syrian opposition" in Jordan, along with British and French instructors "as a bulwark against Islamic extremism."

The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported two days later that the Americans were engaged in "full-scale training" for fighters from the FSA, the largest non-Islamic rebel force in Syria.

Der Spiegel said the aim of the Jordan operation is to train up to 10,000 fighters who will form a dozen or so combat brigades.

On paper at least, that could be a formidable non-Islamist force that would be a pro-Western bulwark against any jihadist effort to dominate a successor regime in Damascus if Assad is toppled.

The training operation, which reportedly began on a smaller scale in 2012, clearly has the support of Jordan's intelligence service, a key and valued ally of U.S. and British intelligence agencies in the battle against jihadist forces.

Jordan, Syria's southern neighbor, is alarmed at the prospect of a jihadist regime emerging in Damascus that could threaten the pro-Western Hashemite kingdom.

The resource-poor desert country is under growing strain from a major refugee problem. Some 400,000 Syrians have sought shelter there and Amman fears that could rise to 1 million in the weeks ahead as the war, 2 years old Friday, intensifies.

The shift in U.S., British and French policy regarding the Syrian conflict has come at a time when it appears the jihadist forces fighting Assad are making major gains, primarily in northern and northeastern Syria.

These are outstripping the so-called moderate forces of the FSA and the umbrella Syrian National Council.

The idea now seems to be to establish a rebel zone in southern Syria, above the border with Jordan and manned by pro-Western forces, to provide a counterweight to the rebel-held zone in northern Syria dominated by Islamists.

All this is far short of direct military intervention, such as mounting airstrikes and naval gunfire as NATO forces did during the eight-month war against Gadhafi that ended with his death Oct. 20, 2011.

But it's clear there's growing alarm at the swelling power of the jihadist forces in Syria, and the prospect of an Islamist regime in Damascus.

In particular, the Western powers want to stamp out Iran's influence in the Levant, isolate Tehran, already battered by Western sanctions over its nuclear program, and eliminate Hezbollah on Israel's northern border.

The British and French say they're prepared to bypass an EU arms embargo on Syria as events unfold.

How far the Obama administration is prepared to go isn't clear.

But with the prospect bleak for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis, the arrival of John Kerry as U.S. secretary of state could signal a new policy in Washington.

.


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