BRUSSELS - Fears grew Tuesday of a foreign-fed arms race in Syria as European Union nations decided they could give weapons to the outgunned rebels and Russia disclosed it has a contract to sell the Syrian government sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles.
Each development could significantly raise the firepower in a two-year civil war that has already killed more than 70,000 people in Syria and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing the country. It also comes as the U.S. and Russia are preparing for a major peace conference in Geneva next month that diplomats have called the best chance yet to end the bloodshed under Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
The EU move late Monday lifting an arms embargo on Syria sparked a broad political fallout within hours.
Russia, which has been a strong supporter of the Syrian government, criticized the EU decision and acknowledged its anti-aircraft missile sale. Israel answered Russia's pledge by warning that it would be prepared to attack any such missile shipments. EU nations continued to express divisions within their 27-member bloc over sending arms to the rebels while both sides fighting in Syria spoke out on the decision.
Analysts, however, said the EU's move would have little immediate impact on the fighting.
France and Britain, which are considering sending military equipment to the rebels, hope the new EU position can help prod the two sides to the negotiating table in Geneva.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration welcomed the EU action, but indicated that the U.S. continues to oppose arming the Syrian rebels. Carney also said the Russian arms sale does not bring Syria closer to the desired political transition.
But in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the EU's decision will hurt prospects for the Geneva talks. He also confirmed Tuesday that Russia has signed a contract with Assad's government to provide state-of-the-art S-300 air defense missiles, which he said were important to prevent foreign intervention in the country.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, fresh off Paris talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about Syria, criticized the EU decision. He told Russian media Tuesday that during the Paris talks, Russia had raised concerns about "a whole series of actions" involving Western powers that "are undermining the idea of the (Geneva peace) conference."
Lavrov also called the EU move an "illegitimate decision" and said official discussions about supplying non-governmental groups with weapons "goes against all norms of international law" - including non-interference with a country's internal affairs.
Syria's Foreign Ministry lashed out at the EU decision as "a blatant violation of international laws and U.N. conventions." In a statement, the ministry said the move exposes the "mockery" of European claims to be supporting a political solution to the Syrian crisis based on national dialogue, while "encouraging terrorists and extending them with arms."
Israel has been pressing Moscow not to go through with the delivery of the S-300s, fearing the missiles could slip into the hands of hostile groups like Hezbollah. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Tuesday that Israel believes the Russian missiles have not yet been shipped, but added the Israeli military "will know what to do" if they are delivered.
Ryabkov said Russia understood other nations' concerns about providing such weapons to Syria, but said his country believes they may "help restrain some hotheads considering a scenario to give an international dimension to this conflict."
The fighting in Syria has threatened to drag in neighbors like Turkey and Lebanon.
An official in Britain's Foreign Office, firing back after Russia's announcement, said: "We have stated that we have made no decision to supply arms to Syria. At the same time, Russia has acknowledged publicly that it is providing weapons to the Assad regime. Of course we disapprove strongly of continued arms sales to the regime."
Britain believes the focus should now be on the "political track," including the Geneva conference, the official said in a statement.
Louay Safi, a senior figure in the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, called the EU decision to let the arms embargo expire a "positive step." Speaking in Istanbul, where the opposition has been holding talks, he warned that any delay in deciding to provide weapons meant further deaths of Syrian civilians.
David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst for IHS Jane's, said in a note that the EU move has "more diplomatic than military weight" so far and will have "little immediate impact on the battlefield."
He noted news reports in neighboring Lebanon reporting that Assad's forces are planning an offensive to retake rebel-held parts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
The Syrian rebels may get Western arms "too late to prevent further government victories, a scenario that might cause the Syrian government to rethink its decision to participate in the Geneva peace conference," Hartwell wrote.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, made an unannounced visit to rebel forces in Syria, putting more pressure on Assad to seek a negotiated settlement.
There's no certainty, however, that the warring sides will come to the table in Geneva.
Assad's regime has provided no sign of any willingness to cede power in Syria, a key opposition demand before entering any talks. Meanwhile, the opposition could try to make a public show of willingness to attend the talks, only to demand that weapons deliveries from Europe start right away if the hoped-for Geneva process breaks down.
The Syrian opposition itself remains badly divided. The al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra is the most powerful Syrian rebel fighting group, and the United States and other Western powers fear that any European weapons could fall into the hands of extremists.
"We have no guarantees about the end user," Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told a public broadcaster Tuesday. "So it is perfectly possible to see arms disappear in the hands of extremists and jihadists. And, second, it is a real proliferation."
France and Britain so far have not specified what weapons they might send in.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told Die Welt newspaper on Tuesday: "Germany will not deliver any weapons to the Syria conflict and we note that no other European country has expressed the intention to do so in the near future."
France and Britain acted amid growing concerns that Assad's government may have resorted to using its vast chemical weapons stockpile against the rebels. French military authorities on Tuesday were analyzing medical samples from patients who had been hospitalized after inhaling poison gas in Syria to see if they could determine if such weapons were used.
The French daily Le Monde said its reporters who traveled to Syria recently submitted the samples, taken by Syrian doctors, to the French government for analysis. The newspaper said patients' symptoms "resemble the effects produced by neurotoxic agents present in the Syrian chemical arsenal."
The French Defense Ministry has confirmed it is analyzing the samples, but would not comment further.
The White House has said that U.S. intelligence concluded that Assad's regime has probably used deadly chemical weapons at least twice - but U.S. officials said the intelligence wasn't strong enough to justify sending significant U.S. military support to the rebels. President Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a "red line."
Associated Press Writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Raf Casert in Brussels, Cassandra Vinograd in London, Robert H. Reid in Berlin, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Josef Federman in Jerusalem, Angela Charlton in Paris, Lynn Berry in Moscow, Julie Pace in Washington, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.