E.U. moves closer to arming Syria rebels


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. (Narciso Contreras/AP)

The European Union edged closer Friday to lifting an embargo against shipping arms to Syria’s opposition, but differences remained about the feasibility of giving a boost to moderates there while bypassing militant jihadist groups.

Britain and France have in recent weeks pushed hard to allow sending weaponry to Syrian rebels, but Germany, Sweden and others among the E.U.’s 27 nations have been skeptical about the advisability of intervening in a bloody sectarian conflict where individual opposition groups have uncertain allegiances.

German willingness to entertain lifting the ban has been increasing in recent days, ahead of a Friday meeting of E.U. foreign ministers in Dublin to discuss the embargo. Germany has been one of the major opponents and any shift may bring other countries along.

“We must prevent heavy weaponry from falling into the wrong hands,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters in Dublin on Friday. But in a separate interview published Friday in Sueddeutsche Zeitung, he said that “at the same time we know that we must be ready to change our policy if there is a change in the situation.”

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.

Interactive Grid: Keeping track of the conflict in Syria through videos, images and tweets.

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.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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