EU refuses to arm Syrian rebels

OVERRIDING CONCERN::Diplomats are worried about the use of chemical weapons, but they are more worried that weapons can fall in the hands of Islamist militants


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 - Page 6

France and Britain failed to persuade the EU to back their call to lift an arms embargo on Syrian rebels on Friday, despite warning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could resort to using chemical weapons.

Paris and London want to exempt al-Assad’s opponents from an EU arms embargo, a step they believe would raise pressure on al-Assad to negotiate after two years of a civil war that has claimed at least 70,000 lives.

However, they won little support from other EU member states at a foreign ministers’ meeting in Dublin, diplomats said, despite raising concerns about chemical weapons to bolster their case.

“I insisted that very close attention must be paid to the possible use by al-Assad of chemical weapons ... There are indications that he might have used them or that he might use them,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters at the close of Friday’s talks.

Al-Assad’s supporters and opponents accused each other of using chemical weapons after 26 people were killed in a rocket attack near the northern city of Aleppo this week.

In a letter to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton setting out their case, Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said they were “increasingly concerned about the regime’s willingness to use chemical weapons.”

Countries such as Germany and Austria remain opposed to lifting the arms embargo for the rebels.

They fear it could lead to weapons falling into the hands of Islamist militants, fuel regional conflict and encourage al-Assad’s backers, Iran and Russia, to step up arms supplies to him.

“We are reluctant about lifting the embargo ... We have to avoid that weapons could come into the wrong hands and that terrorists, jihadists, extremists would misuse these weapons,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters.

The EU has until June 1 to decide whether to renew or amend its sanctions on Syria and discussions on what to do about the arms embargo will continue in EU working groups.

Meanwhile, the US’ CIA has been feeding information to select rebel fighters in Syria to try to make them more effective against government troops, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.

Citing unnamed current and former US officials, the newspaper said the new CIA effort reflected a change in the administration’s approach that aims to strengthen secular rebel fighters.

The CIA has sent officers to Turkey to help vet rebels who receive arms shipments from Gulf allies, the report said.

However, administration officials cited concerns about some weapons going to Islamists, the newspaper added.

In Iraq, the CIA has been directed by the White House to work with elite counterterrorism units to help the Iraqis counter the flow of al-Qaeda-linked fighters across the border with Syria, the Journal said.

According to the report, the West favors fighters aligned with the Free Syrian Army, which supports the Syrian Opposition Coalition political group.

Syrian opposition commanders said the CIA had been working with British, French and Jordanian intelligence services to train rebels in the use of various kinds of weapons, the paper said.

The move comes as the al-Nusra Front, the main al-Qaeda-linked group operating in Syria, is deepening its ties to the terrorist organization’s central leadership in Pakistan, the Journal said.