BEIRUT – Russia on Tuesday 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, and a rebel general said he’s “very disappointed” weapons won’t come fast enough to help opposition fighters defend a strategic Syrian town.
The European Union decision, coupled with Russia’s renewed pledge to supply Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime with advanced missiles, could transform an already brutal civil war into an East-West proxy fight. Israel, meanwhile, threatened to strike such air defense missiles systems if delivered to Syria, portraying them as a threat to the Jewish state and raising the risk of regional conflagration.
The possibility of an arms race in Syria overshadowed attempts by the U.S. and Russia to bring representatives of the Assad regime and Syria’s political opposition to peace talks at an international conference in Geneva, possibly next month.
The talks constitute the international community’s only plan for ending the conflict that began more than two years ago and has killed more than 70,000 people.
In Syria, the commander of the main Western-backed umbrella group of rebel brigades told the Associated Press he urgently needs Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to prevent further regime gains on the battlefield. The rebels’ weapons are no match for the Syrian regime’s modern tanks and warplanes, he said.
“We are very disappointed,” Gen. Salim Idris, military chief of the Free Syrian Army, said of the European Union’s apparent decision to not send weapons, if at all, until after the Geneva conference. “We don’t have any patience (any) more.”
In any case, Europe might think twice about sending such weapons into a chaotic war zone where they could quickly be seized by Islamic militant rebels.
Britain, which along with France had pushed for ending the EU arms embargo, wants to use the threat of arming the rebels as leverage to ensure that Assad negotiates in good faith.
Syria’s fractured opposition, which has not committed to the Geneva talks, could also be lured to the table if attendance is linked to receiving weapons in the event that talks fail. Opposition leaders have said they will only participate in talks if Assad’s departure from power tops the agenda.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that actions by the West “willingly or unwillingly are undermining the idea of the conference.” He denounced the lifting of the EU arms embargo as an “illegitimate decision,” saying that supplying weapons to non-governmental groups “goes against all norms of international law.”
At the same time, Lavrov’s deputy affirmed Tuesday that Russia won’t abandon plans to send long-range S-300 air defense missile systems to Syria, despite strong Western and Israeli criticism.
Further raising the risk of a regional war, Israel warned that it would be prepared to attack any such missile shipments. Israeli Defense Moshe Yaalon said Israel believes the Russian missiles have not been shipped, but that the Israeli military “will know what to do” if they are delivered.