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EU ending embargo on weapons to Syria

PARIS — The Obama administration's go-slow policy on Syria came under renewed pressure Monday as European leaders agreed to allow the lapse of a ban on arms deliveries to Syria's rebels, and Sen. John McCain slipped into the war-torn country to dramatize what he says is the opposition's urgent need for direct military aid.

The new support for Syria's embattled opposition came amid high-level diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry met in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to explore prospects for a peace conference that would bring together rebels and Syrian government officials.

Late in the day, foreign ministers from the 27-nation EU, meeting in the Belgian capital, failed to muster the votes for renewing the arms embargo, which will expire Friday.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague declared in a tweet the "arms embargo on Syrian opposition ended," though there had been no immediate decision to send arms. "Other sanctions remain" in place, he said, including sweeping restrictions on trade with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Hague, in separate comments, said that the EU decision "sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime," the Associated Press reported.

He spoke after an all-day meeting of foreign ministers Monday that laid bare EU hesitation on feeding arms in a foreign conflict only months after the 27-member bloc won the Nobel Peace Prize.

France and Britain urged an end to the embargo, seeking to increase pressure on Assad, while other governments, Austria in particular, countered that delivering weapons to the rebels would only increase the bloodshed and that Europe should stick to nonlethal aid such as flak vests, night-vision goggles and medicines.

The lack of agreement had raised the possibility of each EU country deciding on its own whether to respond to rebel appeals for more-advanced weapons, particularly antitank and antiaircraft missiles.

As the deliberations were under way in Brussels, McCain, R-Ariz., made his surprise visit, intended to reinforce his recent calls for arming the rebels.

McCain, who was in the region for an economics forum, crossed the Turkish-Syrian frontier with a rebel commander, Gen. Salim Idris, the leader of the military wing of the Syrian opposition group. The Obama administration considers Idris more of a moderate than leaders of the Nusra Front, which has ties to al-Qaida and is better funded and organized.

McCain met for several hours with 18 commanders from rebel battalions across Syria, according to the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which assisted in facilitating the visit.

The rebel commanders told McCain, "They don't need more pizza, they need weapons," Elizabeth O'Bagy, political director for the task force, said in a phone interview from Turkey.

A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army said McCain and rebel leaders "discussed solutions to help remove" Assad, whose regime has gained momentum in recent days as military and diplomatic efforts to oust him have appeared to falter.

"He was very open and promised to push for us with the U.S. administration," Louay al-Mokdad, the rebel group's political and media coordinator, said in a phone interview from inside Syria. "We asked about targeted strikes, and we briefed him about Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons."

The White House declined to comment on McCain's trip late Monday. A State Department official said the department was aware of McCain crossing into Syrian territory. Further questions were referred to McCain's office.

President Barack Obama has refused to provide the Syrian rebels with military support because he fears that will empower their more radical elements. McCain has been a fierce critic of Obama administration policy there.

The administration's cautious approach has come under increasing criticism in recent days as Assad's forces, with new backing from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah and weapons from Iran, have forced the fragmented, ill-trained rebels into retreat across several fronts.

McCain's visit to Syria followed a series of increasingly urgent appeals for assistance to the opposition to reverse recent setbacks on the battlefield. During a news conference Saturday in Jordan, McCain warned that Assad was gaining momentum.

McCain had earlier called for deployment of U.S.-made Patriot anti-missile batteries in Jordan, Syria's southern neighbor. Similar batteries have been provided to Turkey, a NATO member, as protection against a possible missile launch from Syria.

The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, McCain told the newspaper that the Patriot batteries could serve as a "first step" in establishing a proposed buffer zone inside Syria where refugees and other noncombatants could enjoy some protection against Syrian air assaults.

The United States and its allies want Assad to agree to step down and give way to a transitional government. But Assad and his chief allies, Russia and Iran, have balked at any suggestion that Assad must resign as a precondition for negotiations.

Monday's dramatic display of support for the rebels contrasted with diplomatic efforts in Paris, where Kerry met for hours with Lavrov to discuss next month's proposed peace talks. The two emerged from a private dinner declaring continued support for a political settlement.

"We are committed to this," Kerry said in a joint news conference with Lavrov, with whom he plans to convene talks about ending the war, which Kerry said last week had killed "upwards of 100,000" people. "We both want to make this conference happen, if possible, together with many other countries that joined up."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

EU ending embargo on weapons to Syria 05/27/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 1:29am]

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