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EU Delays Decision to Arm Syrian Rebels

  • Lisa Bryant

A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra reacts to his picture being taken as their base is shelled in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, Mar.14, 2013.

A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra reacts to his picture being taken as their base is shelled in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, Mar.14, 2013.

European Union governments delayed making a decision Friday on a push by Britain and France to arm Syrian rebels against government troops, as the civil war in Syria marked its second anniversary. Syria was not on the agenda of the European summit that ended Friday in Brussels. But Europe's two military heavyweights, Britain and France, made sure it would be discussed.

Both countries say they will act together in trying to get the 27-member European Union to lift an embargo against shipping weapons to Syria.


British Prime Minister David Cameron said arming the Syrian rebels did not mean giving up on a political solution to the Syrian conflict that has killed roughly 70,000 people and displaced more than a million.

"But of course people want a political solution - of course I want a political situation. But this is not an either-or situation," Cameron said. "I think in fact we're more likely to see political progress if actually people can see that the Syrian opposition which we have now recognized, that we are working with, is a credible and strengthening and growing force."

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Demonstrations were held Friday in protest centers across Syria to mark the second anniversary of the conflict which has claimed the lives of 70,000 people. Anti-government protesters first took to the streets in Syria to demand democratic change on March 15, 2011, during the early days of the region-wide upheaval known as the Arab Spring.

Violence continued in several parts of the country Friday. The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights says government troops launched attacks in south Damascus, while rebels attacked military posts in the town of Kahn Touman in Aleppo province, killing several soldiers.

Also Friday, at least eight Syrians were killed and more than 20 others injured when a bus they were traveling in from Syria overturned in the Kahhaleh region in Lebanon. It was not immediately clear why the bus overturned.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.
Some are concerned the weapons may end up in the wrong hands - like those of Islamist extremists - but Mr. Cameron said this is happening already. All the more important, he said, to work with the opposition so assistance goes to the right people.

EU members have strong reservations

Other EU members, notably economic heavyweight Germany, still have strong reservations about arming Syrian rebels.

But EU president Herman Van Rompuy downplayed the disagreements at a news conference, saying it was normal for member states to disagree.

"I remember Libya - we also started with nuances and sometimes more than nuances in how to act in Libya, and in the end we had a common position," he said. "It is part of the democratic process."

French President Francois Hollande also put a positive spin on the differences.

Hollande said many EU members are convinced the embargo should be lifted. He said there were plenty of legitimate questions about the risks of arming Syrian rebels.

A current EU embargo against sending weapons to Syria expires at the end of May. Britain and France have pushed for the matter to be taken up speedily - which is why European foreign ministers will discuss lifting the embargo when they meet next week in Ireland.

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