BEIRUT: European Union governments Friday rejected Franco-British efforts to lift an EU arms embargo to allow weapons supplies to Syrian rebels, saying this could spark an arms race and worsen regional instability.
The decision came as protesters took to the streets across flashpoint areas in the country, chanting slogans against President Bashar Assad and vowing not to be oppressed again as the anti-regime revolt entered its third year.
France and Britain found little support for their proposal at an EU summit in Brussels, diplomats said, but EU foreign ministers will consider the issue again next week.
French President Francois Hollande, backed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, pressed for the embargo to be lifted, saying Europe could not allow the Syrian people to be massacred.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a leading opponent of lifting the arms embargo, said there was a danger that Assad’s allies Russia and Iran could step up arms supplies to his government if the 27-nation EU lifted its restrictions.
Just because Britain and France now wanted to drop the ban, that didn’t mean 25 other states must follow suit, she told a news conference in Brussels. “That will not be the case.”
“Others have, with, in my view, very good reasons ... pointed to the fact that Iran and also Russia are only waiting for a signal to export arms [and] that one must also be aware of the fragile situation in Lebanon and what that means for the arming of Hezbollah,” she said.
German officials cite what happened in North Africa where guns smuggled out of Libya helped arm Islamists in Mali.
European Council President Herman van Rompuy said leaders had asked their foreign ministers to look at the arms embargo “as a matter of priority” at a March 22-23 meeting in Dublin.
Hollande said he had received guarantees from the Syrian opposition that any arms delivered to them would end up in the right hands.
“I will do everything so that at the end of May at the very latest ... a common solution is adopted by the Union,” he said.
Syrian insurgents are a disparate array of mostly locally organized units, only some of which are loyal to the Free Syrian Army, which is loosely linked to the internationally recognised political opposition, the Cairo-based Syrian National Coalition.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said pressure must be applied to bring about a transition in Syria.
“As things stand today, I am not saying that Britain would actually like to supply arms to rebel groups,” he said.
“What we want to do is work with them and try to make sure that they are doing the right thing. And with technical assistance we are able to do that.”
In Washington, the U.S. government said it would allow American citizens, companies and banks to send money to Syrian opposition forces struggling to topple Assad.
The Treasury Department move exempts Syrian rebels from broad U.S. sanctions against aid to Syria imposed at the beginning of the 2-year-old government crackdown on opposition forces that has killed an estimated 70,000 people.
“The United States is committed to supporting the Syrian people’s aspirations for a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, inclusive, and peaceful Syria,” said the Treasury Department, which controls financial sanctions. “The Syrian government has sacrificed all legitimacy in its violent attempts to cling to power.”As the conflict enters its third year, protesters took to Syria’s streets.
Gathering under the rallying cry, “Two years of sacrifice toward victory,” protesters held anti-regime demonstrations in several areas of the strife-torn country including Damascus, Aleppo in the north and Deraa in the south.
“Long Live Syria! Down with Bashar Assad!,” chanted scores of protesters as they demonstrated in the village of Harra in Deraa, the cradle of the anti-Assad revolt, activists said, adding that the regime army shelled the village.
“We know Assad has fallen, we need people to help us rebuild” the country, said a placard carried by a protester in Assali, southern Damascus, according to an amateur video released by activists.
“Our revolution is victorious. We’ll be waiting for anyone who tries to abuse power,” said another.
On March 15, 2011, Syria’s revolt began as a peaceful uprising with men, women and children demonstrating against the regime, taking inspiration from the Arab world uprisings.
But it quickly morphed into an armed conflict after the regime army unleashed a brutal crackdown on protesters.
On Friday activists vowed that Syrians will not allow anyone to oppress them now. “There is a lot of violence, but two years into the revolution, we realize how far we have come. It’s just a question of time before Assad goes. But now we know we will never again accept a leader who oppresses us or who treats the people like slaves,” said activist Abu Ghazi from Hama.
In Douma near Damascus, protesters took to the streets in small numbers despite intermittent shelling on the rebel-held town, said activist Abu Nadim.
“The violence is constant, and so is the death. But even then we believe Assad will fall, and that oppression will end in Syria. We are patient.”
Despite the peaceful demonstrations, violence continued in key hotspots throughout the country.
Regime forces resumed an assault on parts of third city Homs, pounding the Old City and Khaldiyeh rebel enclaves in the city center and the embattled Bab Amr district in the southwest, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In Homs, the army “made a new attempt to take back control” of rebel enclaves, more than nine months into a suffocating siege on insurgent-held neighborhoods, the Observatory said.
The army also shelled Bab Amr, which rebels infiltrated in a counter-offensive last week, it added.
In Homs province, warplanes targeted the city of Houla, killing at least six people, among them a child, the Observatory said.
At least 151 people were killed Friday, 55 of them civilians, according to a preliminary toll released by the Observatory, which relies on a broad network of activists, doctors and lawyers for its information.
It said that among the dead were at least 23 civilians and seven rebels killed in Damascus province, a flashpoint for violence. Tanks also bombarded the Assali and Qaboun neighborhoods in the capital itself.
Also marking the anniversary, Selim Idriss, who heads the mainstream Free Syrian Army, said “we will not stop fighting until our dream of a democratic country comes true, by bringing about the fall of this criminal regime.”
“We are sure the regime will fall. We are doing our best to make the battle as short as possible, and to reduce the number of victims and destruction,” he added.
The SNC, meanwhile, released a statement saying: “Our sole choice is to uphold the truth that ignited us, to have patience and continue the struggle of those who sacrificed their lives for our vision.”
The coalition added: “The large challenges still before us only increase our determination to overthrow the Assad regime and establish the new Syria.”
The SNC plans to meet in Istanbul next week to elect a prime minister for rebel-held areas of the country, a member said Friday.
“The Coalition is to meet March 18-19 in Istanbul. So far, the meeting is going ahead, and it is to choose the head of government. Consultations are continuing,” Samir Nashar told AFP.
They include Osama Kadi and Salim al-Moslet of key opposition group the Syrian National Council, as well as long-time Christian dissident Michel Kilo.
Former SNC head Burhan Ghalioun had been named in previous lists but does not figure on Friday’s lineup. Defected ex-prime minister Riad Hijab’s candidacy has also been dropped.