EU opens door to arming Syrian rebels; Russia will send more missiles to regime
POSTED: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 - 10:00am
UPDATED: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 - 10:04am
Holly Yan and Saad Abedine CNN — Syrian rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime have been begging the world to arm them.
Now, European Union countries may be stepping up to that call.
The EU lifted its arms embargo on Syrian rebels Monday, a move that could level the playing field and alter the course of Syria's gruesome civil war.
While there are no immediate plans to ship weapons to rebels, the move sends a strong message to Syria's defiant president: Negotiate or face consequences.
"It was a difficult decision for some countries, but it was necessary and right to reinforce international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a written statement.
"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."
Individual EU countries can begin arming rebels in August.
The Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella opposition group, praised the EU's decision but said it's not enough.
Spokesman Louay Safi said he believes the Syrian regime will use the next several weeks to "escalate its brutality" on civilians before EU countries can actually send arms to rebels.
The Syrian Arab News Agency, a Syrian government news outlet, did not immediately comment on the EU decision.
Russia's deputy foreign minister slammed the EU's new ability to arm rebels, saying it undermines the peace process and amounts to an "example of double standards."
Many countries have criticized Russia for sending weapons to the Syrian regime.
But Russia's delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Damascus may help keep the conflict contained, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to the state-run RT news agency.
"We believe that moves like this one to a great degree restrain some hotheads from escalating the conflict to the international scale, from involving external forces," he said, according to RT.
"The S-300 supplies to Syria are being made under a contract that was signed several years ago," Ryabkov told reporters Tuesday.
Since the beginning of the civil war, Russia has insisted its weapons sales to the Syrian government stem from old contracts, including some going back to the Soviet era.
Unrest in Syria began in March 2011, when regime security forces clamped down on peaceful protesters.
The conflict eventually morphed into a civil war believed to have killed more than 80,000 people -- mostly civilians, according to the United Nations.
Dissidents say al-Assad's forces indiscriminately shell neighborhoods that are known as opposition hotbeds; the president says his forces are trying to save the country from terrorists.
Two rockets fired from Syria on Tuesday landed in and around the Lebanese city of Hermel -- a Hezbollah stronghold, Lebanon state news agency NNA reported.
It was not immediately known who fired the rockets.
Hezbollah, the militant Shiite movement, has been backing the Syrian government in its fight against anti-government rebels.
Earlier Tuesday, three Lebanese soldiers were killed when unknown armed men opened fire at a military checkpoint near Lebanon's Syrian border, according to NNA.
While many countries -- including the United States, France and Britain -- have called for al-Assad to step down, agreement on whether to arm Syrian rebels has been harder to come by.
Britain and France led efforts to lift the EU arms embargo on Syria.
Both nations suggested joining countries such as Qatar in providing weapons to rebels, arguing such a step would strengthen moderate rebels and make them less reliant on well-armed extremists in their ranks.
The United States has been more skittish about arming rebels, fearing that weapons could end up in the wrong hands.
In recent months, radical Islamic militants such as members of al Nusra Front have joined the rebels in fighting against the regime.
The United States has designated al Nusra Front as a pro-al Qaeda terrorist group.
But earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Washington is reconsidering its policy of not providing weapons to the rebels.
"You look at, and rethink all options. That doesn't mean you do or you will," Hagel said. "These are options that must be considered with partners, with the international community, what is possible, what can help accomplish these objectives."
The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 as a peaceful demonstration for more freedom and an end to four decades of al-Assad family rule.
The conflict has devolved into a complicated bloodbath that now includes sectarian battles, terrorist fighters and airborne attacks on civilian areas.
U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay said the crisis has deteriorated to an "intolerable affront to the human conscience."
"Whenever their governments cannot or will not protect them, frightened human beings are dependent on the international community for protection and assistance," she said. "We cannot -- we must not -- continue to ignore their plea."
U.S. Sen. John McCain entered Syria through Turkey on Monday, making him the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit during the war.
The Arizona Republican met with 18 commanders of the rebel Free Syrian Army near the country's northern border, according to the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, which helped plan the trip and traveled with McCain.
"(The rebels') main message was that we are desperate for ammunition, we are desperate for weapons," said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the task force.
McCain has been a staunch supporter of arming Syrian rebels for months.
But during his meeting with rebel leaders, McCain also mentioned his concerns about extremism in the country, Moustafa said.
The FSA commanders said they are confident that if weapons go the the army's Supreme Military Council, they "will not fall in the wrong hands," Moustafa said.
"This was an incredibly important trip and trips like this need to happen more frequently," Moustafa said. "It was very important because one of the biggest arguments against supporting the opposition is not knowing who they are. So being able to sit face to face with these commanders brings a much higher level of confidence in who they are."