BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's main opposition bloc has urged the European Union to quickly supply rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's forces with sophisticated weapons to help them overthrow his regime.
The call by the Syrian National Coalition followed the EU's decision to let its arms embargo against Syrian expire, paving way for individual countries in the 27-member bloc to send weapons to Assad's outgunned opponents. However, the EU's move on Monday may have little impact on Syria's 2-year-old conflict, since no single European country is expected to send lethal weapons to the rebels anytime soon.
In a statement late Tuesday, the Western-backed Syrian opposition coalition urged the EU to promptly send "specialized weaponry to repel the fierce attacks waged against unarmed civilians" by the Assad regime, its allies in Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group and their Iranian backers.
"The Coalition recognizes that this decision is part of many serious efforts by the EU to support the Syrian people throughout the hardships in the uprisings," the opposition group said. "However, despite the importance of this decision, the words must be solidified by action."
There are deep divisions in the EU over ways to end the bloodshed in Syria, and even Britain and France — who want to arm the rebels — have said they have no immediate plans to send weapons until diplomacy has been given a chance. The U.S. and Russia are trying to launch Syrian peace talks at a conference in Geneva, possibly next month.
Still, the possibility of an arms race in Syria could overshadow attempts to bring representatives of Assad's regime and its political opposition to the talks.
Damascus previously said that it would "in principle" attend the Geneva talks. The opposition coalition has yet to decide whether to go or not, and despite days of deliberations in Istanbul, the fractured bloc has not come up with a decision.
Opposition leaders insist Assad must relinquish power before any talks with Damascus can take place.
The Geneva talks, though seen as a long shot, are the international community's only plan for ending the conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people and force more than five million people from their homes to seek refuge in neighboring countries and in other parts of Syria.
Russia, Assad's close ally, has harshly criticized Europe's decision to allow the arming of Syrian rebels, saying it undercuts international efforts to negotiate an end to the civil war. Moscow also renewed its pledge to supply Assad's regime with advanced missiles, which could transform an already brutal conflict into an East-West proxy fight.
U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Tuesday that Washington welcomes the EU decision as a show of support for the Syrian opposition and as a message to the Assad regime that such support will only grow. He said the Obama administration will continue to provide non-lethal assistance to the rebels but hasn't made a decision on whether to arm them.
Washington and many of its European allies have been reluctant to send sophisticated weapons to Syrian rebels, fearing they could end up in the hands of radical Islamic groups such as the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that have emerged as the most effective and organized fighting force on the opposition's side.
Israel on Tuesday signaled it was prepared to strike Russian deliveries of air defense missiles systems to Syria, portraying them as a threat to the Jewish state and raising the risk of regional conflagration.