Archive for May, 2013

EU ends arms embargo against Syrian rebels

Brussels (AFP)

May 28, 2013

The European Union finally agreed Monday to lift its embargo against arming Syrian rebels, after tough talks that exposed sharp differences between Britain and France, champions of the move, and their more reluctant partners.

However none of the 27 European member states intends to send any arms to the rebels in the coming months, for fear of endangering a US-Russia peace initiative for Syria.

After a grueling 12 hours of talks, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced the deal to lift the arms embargo against the rebels, while maintaining the remainder of a far-reaching two-year package of sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Without such a deal, the entire set of sanctions, including an assets freeze on Assad and his cronies, and restrictions on trade in oil and financial transactions, would have lapsed at midnight on Friday.

But the agreement reached by EU foreign ministers in Brussels failed to come underpinned by a tight range of safeguards demanded for both ethical and political reasons by opponents of the long-running Franco-British push to arm Syria’s rebels.

“It was not possible to find a compromise with France and Britain,” said Austrian Foreign Michael Spindelegger, a longtime outspoken opponent of the move.

Austria, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic were reticent about pouring more arms into a conflict that has already cost some 94,000 lives.

To send arms is “against the principles” of Europe which is a “community of peace”, said Spindelegger.

A French official in Paris stressed that “this is a theoretical lifting of the embargo. In concrete terms, there will be no decision on any deliveries before August 1”.

Such a delay will allow for the planned US-Russia sponsored international peace conference on Syria, which it is hoped both the Assad regime and opposition figures will attend, to take place in Geneva in June.

The deal made in Brussels leaves the decision to supply arms to the rebels up to each nation. Ministers nonetheless vowed to stick to safeguards against misuse and to respect EU rules on arms exports.

Hague stressed that Britain, while championing the move, had “no immediate” plans to supply weapons to the rebels fighting Assad.

“None of the member states have the intention of actually providing arms at this stage,” said Frans Timmermans, the Dutch minister who tried to steer a compromise.

“Member states will have to decide for themselves in the future whether they will provide groups with arms in that region.”

But a written vow to respect a joint moratorium on supplying arms until after the planned peace conference in Geneva next month was eliminated in the final deal.

In Istanbul, Syria’s opposition Coalition had urged EU foreign ministers to lift the embargo.

“It’s the moment of truth that we’ve been waiting for for months,” said spokesman Khaled al-Saleh.

Hague said it had been a “difficult” decision for EU partners who believe delivering arms would serve only to fuel the conflict.

“I think it is the right decision,” he added. “It will support political progress on Syria and our attempts to bring together a Geneva (peace) conference.”

Hague said Britain saw only a political solution and a diplomatically supported solution for Syria but that Monday’s ground-breaking decision “sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime of what we think of the continued brutality and murder and criminality of this regime”.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left the talks before the finish to meet in Paris with his Russian and US counterparts, Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry, over efforts to convene the Syria peace conference in Geneva.

According to a document obtained by AFP, a compromise favored by most nations would have formally postponed the actual delivery of arms until a fresh political decision by all EU members by August 1 “in light of the developments related to the US-Russia initiative”.

“Quite a lot of arms are already going to the wrong hands,” said Timmermans. “The parties to the conflict don’t have a shortage of arms, frankly.”

EU diplomats said Britain had refused to agree to put the decision to the EU a second time by August 1. It wanted the deal to be implemented automatically after a set period.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/EU_ends_arms_embargo_against_Syrian_rebels_999.html.

Syrian rebels shoot down regime helicopter in east

May 06, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels shot down a military helicopter in the country’s east, killing eight government troops on board as President Bashar Assad’s troops battled opposition forces inside a sprawling military air base in the north for the second straight day, activists said Monday.

In the past months, rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad have frequently targeted military aircraft and air bases in an attempt to deprive his regime of a key weapon used to target opposition strongholds and reverse rebel gains in the 2-year-old conflict.

The fighting inside the Mannagh air base in northern Syria came a day after Israeli warplanes struck areas in and around the capital, Damascus, setting off a series of explosions as they targeted a shipment of highly accurate, Iranian-made guided missiles believed to be bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, officials and activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Monday posted a video online showing several armed men standing in front of the wreckage. One of the fighters in the footage says it’s a helicopter that the rebels shot down late Sunday in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, along Syria’s border with Iraq.

As the man speaks, the camera shifts to a pickup truck piled with bodies. The fighter is then heard saying that all of Assad’s troops who were aboard the helicopter were killed in the downing. He says Islamic fighters of the Abu Bakr Saddiq brigade brought down the helicopter as it was taking off from a nearby air base in the provincial capital of Deir el-Zour.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said eight troops were killed. On Sunday, rebels occupied parts of the Mannagh military air base after weeks of fighting with government troops who have been defending the sprawling facility near the border with Turkey for months, the Observatory said.

Assad’s warplanes were pounding rebel positions inside the Mannagh air base Monday as clashes between rebels and government forces raged on, the Observatory said, adding there was an unknown number of casualties on both sides.

The rebels moved deep into the air base on Sunday despite fire from government warplanes, capturing a tank unit inside the base and killing the base commander, Brig. Gen. Ali Salim Mahmoud, according to another activists group, the Aleppo Media Center.

The Israeli airstrike on Sunday, the second in three days and the third this year, signaled a sharp escalation of Israel’s involvement in Syria’s civil war. Syrian state media reported that Israeli missiles hit a military and scientific research center near Damascus and caused casualties. The reports did not specify the number or say if the casualties were civilians or troops.

State-run SANA news agency made no mention of the fighting inside the Mannagh air base. But the agency reported that government troops on Monday regained control of villages along the highway that links the northern city of Aleppo to its civilian airport, the country’s second largest.

Syrian “armed forces restored security and stability to (six) villages” south of the city and along the airport highway, SANA said, calling it a “major strategic victory in the north.” Much of the north has been in rebel hands since the opposition fighters last summer launched an offensive in the area, capturing army bases and large swaths of land along the border with Turkey and whole neighborhoods inside Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

The rebels have for months battled regime troops over the airport complex that includes army bases and a military air field. They’ve captured village and towns along the strategic highway and earlier this year advanced within a few kilometers (miles) miles of the airport, cutting the main road the army has been using to ferry troops and supplies to its bases at the airport.

But last month government troops recaptured the village of Aziza on a strategic road that links Aleppo with its airport and military bases, dealing a huge setback to the rebels unable to hold on to the territory in the face of Assad’s superior fire power.

The Syrian conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime in March 2011, but eventually turned into a civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people according to the United Nations.

More than one million Syrians have fled their homes during the fighting and sought shelter in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Millions of others have been displaced inside Syria.

In Geneva, former war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said a U.N. commission has indications that Syrian rebel forces used nerve agent sarin as a weapon in their fight against Assad’s regime — but no evidence that government forces also used sarin as a chemical weapon.

Del Ponte is on the U.N.’s four-member independent human rights panel probing alleged war crimes and other abuses in Syria. She told Italian-language Swiss public broadcaster SRI in an interview broadcast Sunday night that the indications are based on interviews with victims, doctors and field hospitals in neighboring countries.

The panel’s investigators have “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” said del Ponte.

Associated Press Writer John Heilprin contributed to this report from Geneva.