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US Backs EU Step to Arm Syrian Rebels, Russia Cites International Law Against

Russia slams EU move to lift arms ban on Syrian rebels

AFP, By FRANCE 24 (text)

The European Union on Tuesday lifted an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, in a move that drew rebuke from Moscow even if there were no immediate plans to deliver military equipment to the forces locked in a bloody civil war with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“Tonight EU nations agreed to bring the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition to an end,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement, adding that it was a “difficult decision for some countries” only a few months after the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize.

All other EU sanctions on the Assad regime will remain in place.

“It was important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so. Tonight EU nations have done just that,” Hague said.

The government in Damascus criticised the move, calling it an "obstruction" to efforts to find a diplomatic solution.

Hague and other European officials emphasised that they had no immediate plans to proceed with a delivery of weapons as diplomats continue to seek a peaceful end to the 26-month-old conflict.

“I have not detected any readiness from anyone at this time to contemplate that particular option,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in reference to supplying the opposition with military equipment.

Nevertheless, Russia criticised the European initiative, saying it threatened to derail current diplomatic efforts.

The EU move “directly hurts our ability to organise an international conference”, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Tuesday, referring to an international push to get the two sides to negotiations in Geneva in June.

Ryabkov also defended Russia’s planned sale of S-300 missile systems to the Assad regime – despite strong opposition from the United States, France and Israel – saying it would have a “stabilising” effect on the conflict.

“We think this delivery is a stabilising factor,” he told a news conference on Tuesday, adding that the move might help restrain the “hotheads” who are hoping for international intervention in the conflict.

Israel warns on arms shipments

Israel has stridently objected to the shipment of weapons, and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon warned Tuesday of a strong response to any such delivery.

"The deliveries have not taken place, and I hope they do not," Yaalon said. "But if, by misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do."

Britain and France, the EU's biggest military powers, had been pushing the bloc to lift its embargo on the delivery of weapons to help the opposition.

But the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army fighting Assad have struggled with internal divisions, inspiring little confidence in potential European partners.

In August of last year, the UN said Syrian opposition forces had also committed war crimes, including murder and torture, even if abuses were not of the same gravity, frequency and scale as those committed by Assad’s regime.

The EU said it would review its position on the arms embargo to opposition forces before August after scheduled discussions with the UN secretary general and based on the developments of an ongoing joint US-Russia initiative for peace talks in Geneva.

France and Britain said Tuesday that an agreement not to send weapons shipments before an August 1 limit could be breached if necessary, but said they had no current plans to do so.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

US backs EU step to arm Syrian rebels, Russia cites international law against

Published time by RT: May 28, 2013 20:56

Edited time: May 29, 2013 07:48 AFP

The US has welcomed the EU’s decision to lift an arms embargo on Syria, as a show of “full support" for rebels fighting against President Assad. Russia branded the potential shipments as “unlawful”.

The State Department has called for an end of the embargo on shipment of arms to rebels, saying that this step "gives the flexibility of specific EU member states to support the opposition as they see fit," acting State Department deputy spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said at the briefing on Tuesday.

At the same time, for President Bashar Assad this should be a message "that support for the opposition is only going to increase”, Ventrell said.

As the United States has so far provided only non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels, Ventrell said the new decision “allows others to continue to accelerate that assistance to the opposition."

The State Department has stressed that it will not change its policy based on the EU’s decision.

Ventrell reiterated America’s position, saying that it opposes Russia selling anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad regime.

“We think that's a mistake. They've described it as fulfilling existing contracts,” he said, then assuring that the US government will “continue to work with them [Russia]."

The comments came after Russia criticized the EU lifted its arms embargo, with diplomats branding the move as an "example of double standards". Russia insists that its own sale of arms to the Syrian government may help restrain warmongers.

However, it has neither confirmed, nor denied “the status of those shipments” Russia is carrying out under a contract signed with Syria several years ago.

Moscow has been asserting its right to ship S-300 batteries, maintaining that it does not violate international law.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris on May 27, 2013 (AFP Photo / Pool / Jim Young)

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lambasted the EU’s latest move as “an unlawful” decision.

"This is an unlawful decision, in principle, to discuss seriously on official level the issue of supplying or not supplying arms to non-state actors is contrary to all norms of international law,” Lavrov said.

He recalled negotiations on the text of the Global Arms Trade Treaty, which read that “arms should be supplied to governments and only with requirement of an end-user certificate”.

“I don’t know which end-user certificate the Syrian opposition can give to exporters from Europe,” Lavrov added.

The Syrian government has slammed the easing of the EU’s embargo as an “obstruction of efforts to resolve the conflict in the country peacefully”.

The country’s Foreign Ministry has accused the Union of giving “support and encouragement to terrorists by providing them with weapons in clear violation of international law and the UN Charter.”

Despite Britain and France having made a commitment not to deliver arms to the Syrian opposition "at this stage," the UK’s Foreign Secretary William Hague has not ruled out arming the rebels before August 1, saying that Britain now has the right to do so.

United Kingdom Secretary of State for Foreign and Commenwealth Affairs William Hague (L) speaks with Luxembourg Foreign Affairs minister Jean Asselborn (C) and Austrian Foreign minister Michael Spindelegger (R) prior to a Foreign Affairs Council on May 27, 2013, at the European Union headquarters in Brussels (AFP Photo / Georges Gobet)

There are opinions that criticize the decision to ease the embargo and predict only more death to come out of the prospect of arming the Syrian opposition. And that also includes the possibility of a dangerous fallout already seen in the aftermath of Afghanistan and Libya, with Western weapons ending up in the hands of terrorists only to be turned against their suppliers. British journalist Neil Clark spoke to RT reiterating those points:

“I think there will be a massive blowback from this because there’s no doubt – it’s 100 per cent sure – that if Britain and France send more weapons into this arena they will end up in the hands of groups like the Al-Nusra Front and Al Qaeda-created groups. And these will come back to be used against British citizens in Britain perhaps and across the world. And so, we’ve got a real problem here. We’ve got a British neo-conservative government that’s actually lining up on the same side as Al Qaeda and Islamic extremists in Syria.”

Meanwhile, Moscow and Washington remain undecided as to the content of a proposed international conference on Syria, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov.

There are fears that nothing will come of the idea at all, if no adequate elements of the Syrian opposition are found to be at the other end of the table to Assad.

A frequent contributor on the subject, Sharmine Narwani, who is a senior associate at Oxford University and blogger for Al Akhbar English in Beirut, spoke to RT, sharing her bewilderment at the confused actions of the US, Britain and France, at a time when the West feels it needs any kind of leverage at all before the proposed conference takes place - all signs that their mission in Syria is not as successful as they had hoped.

“They go into these talks with their side, having no military advantage on the ground. They go into these talks with no sign of the Assad government being replaced [and] with a sense that in fact millions of Syrians do not support this rebellion. So, unless they gain some leverage before these talks they have nothing to push their own agendas.”

But despite fears that the Geneva conference will not take place, Narwani is confident that some arrangement will nonetheless materialise, and the reasons are not as obvious as some may think:

“Even if the conference doesn’t go ahead as envisioned, this is a critical time and something that is absolutely important that no one is pointing out is that about a year from now, the US military is going to have to unwind and exit Afghanistan. And [they] absolutely need the cooperation and assistance of Russia, China and Iran, to leave with their heads held high and without any lambasting implications of this. And those are the three countries that would like to see the US exit from Syria, so I think there’s a grand bargain in the works, regardless of whether the Geneva conference goes ahead.”

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