Syria’s main opposition bloc yesterday urged the EU to quickly supply rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces with sophisticated weapons to help them overthrow his regime.
The call by the Syrian National Coalition followed an EU decision on Monday to let the Syrian arms embargo expire, paving the way for individual countries in the 27-member union to send weapons to al-Assad’s outgunned opponents.
However, the EU decision may have little impact on Syria’s two-year-old conflict, since no single European country is expected to send lethal weapons to the rebels anytime soon.
Nevertheless the Syrian opposition coalition urged the EU to back the arms flow and promptly send “specialized weaponry to repel the fierce attacks waged against unarmed civilians” by al-Assad’s regime, together with its allies in Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group and Iranian backers.
“The coalition recognizes that this decision is part of many serious efforts by the EU to support the Syrian people throughout the hardships in the uprisings,” the group’s statement said yesterday. “However, despite the importance of this decision, the words must be solidified by action.”
There are deep divisions in the EU over ways to end the bloodshed in Syria, and even Britain and France — who want to arm the rebels — have said they have no immediate plans to do so until diplomacy has been given a chance. The US and Russia are trying to launch Syrian peace talks at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, possibly next month.
Still, the possibility of an arms race in Syria could overshadow attempts to bring representatives of al-Assad’s regime and its political opposition to the talks.
Damascus previously said that it would “in principle” attend the Geneva talks. The opposition coalition has yet to decide whether to go or not and despite days of deliberations in Istanbul, the fractured bloc has not come up with a joint decision.
Opposition leaders insist al-Assad must relinquish power before any talks with Damascus can take place.
The Geneva talks, though seen as a long shot, are the international community’s only plan for ending the conflict that began more than two years ago and has killed more than 70,000 people. Also, more than 5 million people fled their homes, seeking refuge in neighboring countries and in other parts of Syria.
Russia, al-Assad’s close ally, has harshly criticized Europe’s decision to allow the arming of Syrian rebels, saying it undercuts international efforts to negotiate an end to the civil war. Moscow also renewed its pledge to supply al-Assad’s regime with advanced missiles, which could transform an already brutal conflict into an East-West proxy fight.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered his Cabinet to stay silent on the issue of Russian missile deliveries to Syria, public radio said yesterday.
His remarks came after several ministers criticized Moscow’s arms deals with Damascus and raised the possibility of an Israeli response should the Jewish state feel under threat.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon on Tuesday warned Israel would “know what to do” if Russia delivered promised anti-aircraft missiles to the al-Assad regime.
“The deliveries have not taken place and I hope they do not, but if, by misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do,” Yaalon told reporters.
Israel has launched several air raids inside Syria this year, targeting convoys transporting weapons to its arch foe Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israeli Intelligence and Strategic Affairs minister Yuval Steinitz also confirmed Israel would “react to any threat.”
“I hope Damascus understands that. We will react forcefully,” he told reporters on Tuesday, describing Russia’s planned delivery of the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles as “morally wrong.”