France Suggests Arming Syrian Rebels


PARIS - France's foreign minister raised the prospect Thursday of sending "defensive weapons" to Syrian rebels, saying his country will ask the European Union to consider lifting its arms embargo on the Middle East nation.

The civil war in Syria, which began as an uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime, has killed more than 36,000 Syrians since March 2011, according to anti-Assad activists. The fighting and floods of refugees seeking safety have also spilled over into several of Syria's neighbors, including Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the EU's arms embargo is preventing Syrian rebels from fully defending themselves.

"We must not militarize the conflict ... but it's obviously unacceptable that there are liberated zones and they're bombed" by Assad's regime, Fabius said in an interview with RTL radio. "We have to find a good balance."

"The question of defensive arms will be raised," he said, without providing details about such arms. "This cannot be done without coordination between Europeans."

The topic of Syria is sure to be on the agenda at the EU foreign ministers meeting Monday in Brussels.

Among Western nations, France has been at the forefront of the struggle, and on Tuesday quickly recognized a new opposition coalition formed Sunday as the Syrian people's sole representative. It was the first Western nation to do so.

France has already been funneling aid, some through cloak and dagger means, to Syrian rebels, but expects to turn that over to the new coalition.

Russia, meanwhile, still opposes assistance to the Syrian opposition.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich, speaking at a briefing Thursday, said foreign help to those fighting Assad's government would represent a "gross violation" of basic principles of international law. He cited a 1970 U.N. document saying that no country should help or finance military action aimed at the violent overthrow of a foreign government.

The Russian comments came before those from Fabius, who did not mention that Russia has consistently vetoed Security Council resolutions trying to step up the pressure against the Assad regime.

In Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recognized the broad-based Syrian National Coalition on Thursday, according to the Anadolu news agency.

The president of the new opposition coalition, the 52-year-old preacher-turned activist Mouaz al-Khatib, is to visit Paris and meet with President Francois Hollande on Saturday.

A French diplomatic official said Thursday that France sees quick recognition as a primary way to assure success for the opposition.

"There won't be many other occasions like this," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and asked not to be named. "We have a collective responsibility, to the Syrians and ourselves, to make this live."

President Barack Obama is holding back full recognition, saying Wednesday that the U.S. isn't considering sending weapons to the opposition because of concerns the arms might end up in the hands of extremists.

Israeli tanks struck a Syrian artillery launcher Monday after a stray mortar shell flew into Israel-held territory, the first direct clash between the neighbors since the Syrian uprising began. The confrontation fueled new fears that the Syrian civil war could drag Israel into the violence, with grave consequences for the region.

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