A rebel sniper aims at a Syrian army position, seen with another rebel fighter reflected in a mirror, in the Jedida district of Aleppo. Britain and France have in recent weeks pushed hard to allow sending weaponry to Syrian rebels.
The United States has also resisted arming the Syrian rebels. According to United Nations estimates, more than 70,000 people have died in Syria since the conflict started in March 2011.
The Syria embargo will expire at the end of May if the E.U. takes no action before then, and Britain and France have urged that sanctions continue on Assad’s government but that exceptions be added to allow antiaircraft and antitank missiles to be sent to rebel groups. Doing so could dramatically change the course of a bloody conflict that has entered its third year. Right now, Syrian government fighter planes and helicopters are able to fly over large portions of Syrian territory unhindered. The heavy weapons — and the training to operate them — could push Assad on his heels.
But Europeans are split on whether there is anyone to arm within Syria’s fragmented opposition. Weapons such as shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles would be useful in the fight against Assad, but they would also be useful in taking down a Western airliner. Some European countries, including Germany, believe that the only rebel group in Syria with the organization to effectively use heavy weaponry against Assad is the Jabhat al-Nusra, or al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group that has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States for its suspected ties to al-Qaeda.
“What makes us very nervous is that al-Nusra is stronger than people believe it is,” said a senior European official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal intelligence assessments.
That official said that lifting the weapons embargo may be largely symbolic, because Britain and France may not have significant stockpiles of weaponry to send to rebel groups. But lifting it would give Europeans greater leeway to channel arms from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to rebels training in Jordan and Turkey.
In a joint letter to E.U. foreign policy head Catherine Ashton ahead of Friday’s meeting, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote that “the crisis is increasingly threatening regional stability . . . and we are increasingly concerned about the regime’s willingness to use chemical weapons,” Reuters reported.
(Source / 22.03.2013)