Britain, France urged to show restraint before arming Syrian rebels

The Washington Post reports: A day after halting the European Union’s weapons embargo on Syria, Britain and France are facing criticism from Russia, and pressure at home and abroad, to show restraint before acting to arm the rebels who are trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Britain, along with France, scored a diplomatic victory in Paris on Monday, effectively blocking an attempt by other European nations to extend the regional embargo that has prevented them from sending weapons to help the Syrian opposition. Britain said it has no immediate intention to ship arms, and in Paris and London, Monday’s move was portrayed as a precautionary tool aimed at pressuring Assad to negotiate an end to the conflict.

But the dropping of the embargo nevertheless opened a possible route for Britain and France, which have been leading the charge in the West for more support to the Syrian opposition, to act unilaterally should they choose to.

On the heels of French intervention in Mali, the move once again underscored the inability of the E.U. to forge a united front on major foreign policy issues. It was bitterly opposed by a number of European countries, including Austria, that fear any arms sent to the rebels could fall into the hands Islamist extremists within the Syrian opposition and lead to more regional spillover of the conflict.

“We are a peace community, and we would like to stay as a peace community,” Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told journalists in Paris. Spindelegger said Britain and France have agreed not to deliver any weapons until at least August, to give more time to attempts at brokering a peace deal.

Russia denounced the E.U. action, saying it placed Europeans on the brink of supplying arms to a murky rebel force. “You cannot declare the wish to stop the bloodshed, on one hand, and continue to pump armaments into Syria on the other hand,” Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, said at a news conference in Moscow on Tuesday.

At the same time, Russia defended its decision to continue supplying air defense and anti-ship missiles to the Syrian government in accordance with previously signed contracts. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: Sen. John McCain Monday became the highest-ranking U.S. official to enter Syria since the bloody civil war there began more than two years ago, The Daily Beast has learned.

McCain, one of the fiercest critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, made the unannounced visit across the Turkey-Syria border with Gen. Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. He stayed in the country for several hours before returning to Turkey. Both in Syria and Turkey, McCain and Idris met with assembled leaders of Free Syrian Army units that traveled from around the country to see the U.S. senator. Inside those meetings, rebel leaders called on the United States to step up its support to the Syrian armed opposition and provide them with heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and airstrikes on the Syrian regime and the forces of Hezbollah, which is increasingly active in Syria.

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