Syria Opposition Urges EU to Lift Arms Ban
Syria's opposition urged Monday EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels to lift an arms embargo on the war-torn country, and to allow weapons to be channeled to rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's regime.
"I think it falls upon the EU to really make a decision. It's the moment of truth that we've been waiting for for months," said Khaled al-Saleh, spokesman for the main opposition National Coalition.
"People on the inside (in Syria) continue to ask for weapons to protect themselves," Saleh told AFP.
EU foreign ministers went into talks Monday sharply divided over lifting an embargo to arm Syrian rebels but seeking a compromise to underpin a Russian-U.S. effort to bring the warring parties to a peace conference.
The EU talks were complicated further as Syria's main opposition group remained split on the prospect of peace negotiations with Damascus despite four days of talks in Istanbul.
Syrians "are not even aware probably of the difficulties the (opposition) politicians are facing... Forget about the politicians, think about the Syrians," said Saleh.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said "we think it is important that we show we are ready to amend the arms embargo" so as to send a message to Assad that he cannot win.
Hague said changing the arms embargo would support the overall diplomatic effort.
"Let's get people to the table and see if their positions have changed," he said.
London and Paris have been pushing their partners to amend an existing arms embargo in order to help tip the military balance in favor of the rebels fighting Assad, but many EU nations are fiercely opposed to sending more weapons into a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.
The ministers however must find a solution before the expiry at midnight Friday of a far-reaching package of EU sanctions against the Assad regime, including the blanket arms embargo.
Britain and France want the embargo maintained against Assad but relaxed against the opposition Syrian National Coalition, but a group of nations including Austria, Finland, the Czech Republic and Sweden want no change, or at least none before a proposed peace conference being pushed by Russia and the United States.
Austria's Michael Spindelegger said he had talked to Hague before the meeting to tell him that "we have arguments against" easing the arms embargo.
If there has to be an amendment, Spindelegger said he hoped to find a compromise "to (extend) the arms embargo" but still allow time to "see what comes out of" the mooted second peace conference in Geneva.
Several other ministers made similar remarks as they went into Monday's meeting, suggesting that a wait-and-see approach was best for the moment.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian and French counterparts in Paris Monday, pushing the idea for a "Geneva 2" conference aimed at ending the more than two-year conflict, which activists say has killed more than 94,000 people.
Rights groups say more than 90,000 people have been killed in two years of unrest that broke out after the army and security forces unleashed a massive crackdown on an anti-regime uprising.