France explores idea of arming Syrian rebels
France raised the possibility Thursday of sending "defensive weapons" to Syria's rebels, but Russia warned that such a move would violate international law.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country will ask the European Union to consider lifting the Syrian arms embargo, which prevents weapons from being sent to either side.
"We must not militarize the conflict ... but it's obviously unacceptable that there are liberated zones and they're bombed" by President Bashar Assad's regime, Fabius said in an interview with RTL radio. "We have to find a good balance."
The civil war in Syria, which began as an uprising against Assad's regime, has killed more than 36,000 Syrians since March 2011, according to anti-government activists. The fighting and flood of refugees seeking safety have also spilled over into several of Syria's neighbors, including Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
The fighting has descended into a bloody stalemate, and rebels say they desperately need weapons to turn the tide.
"The question of defensive arms will be raised," Fabius said, without providing details about what such arms would be. "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.
France has taken a leading role among Western countries in supporting Syria's rebels. On Tuesday, it became the first Western nation to formally recognize Syria's newly formed opposition coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
On Saturday, 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. Al-Khatib is scheduled to hold talks a day earlier in London with British officials, who have said they will urge the opposition to set out a strategy to halt the conflict.
Syria's splintered rebel factions agreed to a U.S.-backed plan to unite last weekend under the new umbrella group, which seeks a common voice and strategy against the regime.
A French diplomatic official said Thursday that Paris 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."
Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria and is a major backer of the opposition, followed suit on Thursday, with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu saying Ankara recognized the Syrian National Coalition as "the only legal representative" of Syria, the Anadolu news agency reported.
The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council already has recognized the new broad-based Syrian opposition group. The GCC includes Qatar and regional power Saudi Arabia, both of whom have been some of the strongest supporters of the rebels fighting to oust Assad.
The U.S. also recognized the leadership body announced in Qatar on Sunday as a legitimate representative, but stopped short of describing it as the sole representative, saying the group must first demonstrate its ability to represent Syrians inside the country.
President Obama on Wednesday reiterated 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.
Although Assad remains isolated internationally, he still has the backing of key allies Russia, China and Iran.
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich warned that providing assistance to Syrian opposition fighters would breach international law.
He specifically cited a 1970 United Nations document saying that no country should help or finance military action aimed at the violent overthrow of a foreign government. He also said the opposition's refusal to hold talks with Assad would "strengthen positions of extremists."
Lukashevich said Russia will continue its contacts with both the government and the opposition to encourage them to sit down for talks. "There is no alternative to an inclusive dialogue without any foreign interference," he said.
Despite myriad attempts over the past year to reach a diplomatic solution to the crisis, violence has continued unabated on the ground.
Syrian activists said regime warplanes carried out airstrikes Thursday on an eastern town bordering Iraq after rebels seized a security headquarters following days of heavy fighting.
Rebels had been making advances in the town of al-Boukamal in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour for weeks. On Thursday, they seized control of the military security building and a military checkpoint at the edge of the town.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a local activist who gave only his first name, Omar, said Syrian regime forces retaliated with air raids on al-Boukamal. It was not immediately clear whether there were any casualties.
The Observatory also said it received a report from Aleppo, Syria's largest city and the epicenter of some of the worst fighting, that dozens of soldiers' bodies were being held at the international airport. The men apparently had been killed in fighting, but authorities were delaying returning the soldiers' bodies to their families.
It was impossible to independently confirm the report.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Christopher Torchia in Istanbul, David Stringer in London, and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.