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updated: 5/29/2013 9:46 AM

Syrian opposition urges EU to send arms to rebels

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Associated Press

BEIRUT -- Syria's main Western-backed opposition bloc urged the European Union to quickly supply rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's forces with sophisticated weapons as activist groups inside the country accused the opposition leadership Wednesday of failing to fulfill its obligations to the Syrian people.

The Revolutionary Movement in Syria, an umbrella organization of activist groups from across the country, threatened to withdraw its backing for the Syrian National Coalition if the notoriously fractured opposition leadership in exile doesn't come up with a strategy that will represent millions of Syrians caught up in the country's bloody civil war. While the loss of support would have little practical effect, it would deal a sharp symbolic blow to the Coalition, which has long been accused of being out of touch with those on the ground in Syria.

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The Coalition has been meeting for days in Istanbul, but has failed to agree on several key points, including on whether to attend international peace talks in Geneva with representatives of Assad's regime aimed at finding a resolution to the more than 2-year-old conflict.

The Revolutionary Movement said the Coalition is "unable to fulfill its obligations due to the ongoing discord" among its different parties and said the statement Wednesday was its "last warning" before they withdraw their support.

"We have waited in vain for many months for the National Coalition to take concrete steps, and offered its leadership multiple chances to do so," the statement said. "The reality is that there is no doubt that the ... leadership has failed to fulfill its responsibility to represent the great Syrian people's revolution at the organizational, political, and humanitarian levels."

The opposition coalition has yet to decide whether to attend the U.S.-Russia sponsored peace talks. The deeply divided umbrella group that is backed by the United States and its European allies insists Assad must relinquish power before any talks with Damascus can take place.

Damascus previously said that it would "in principle" attend the Geneva talks.

The Geneva talks, though seen as a long shot, are the international community's only plan for ending the conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people and force more than five million people from their homes to seek refuge in neighboring countries and in other parts of Syria.

Meanwhile, the Coalition urged the European Union to quickly supply rebels fighting Assad's forces with sophisticated weapons to help them overthrow his regime.

The call followed the EU's decision to let its arms embargo against Syria expire, paving way for individual countries in the 27-member bloc to send weapons to Assad's outgunned opponents. However, the EU's move on Monday may have little impact on Syria's 2-year-old conflict, since no single European country is expected to send lethal weapons to the rebels anytime soon.

In a statement late Tuesday, the Syrian opposition coalition urged the EU to promptly send "specialized weaponry to repel the fierce attacks waged against unarmed civilians" by the Assad regime, its allies in Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group and their Iranian backers.

"The Coalition recognizes that this decision is part of many serious efforts by the EU to support the Syrian people throughout the hardships in the uprisings," the opposition group said. "However, despite the importance of this decision, the words must be solidified by action."

There are deep divisions in the EU over ways to end the bloodshed in Syria, and even Britain and France -- who want to arm the rebels -- have said they have no immediate plans to send weapons until diplomacy has been given a chance. The U.S. and Russia are trying to launch Syrian peace talks at a conference in Geneva, possibly next month.

Still, the possibility of an arms race in Syria could overshadow attempts to bring representatives of Assad's regime and its political opposition to the talks.

Russia, Assad's close ally, has 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. Moscow also renewed its pledge to supply Assad's regime with advanced missiles, which could transform an already brutal conflict into an East-West proxy fight.

U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Tuesday that Washington welcomes the EU decision as a show of support for the Syrian opposition and as a message to the Assad regime that such support will only grow. He said the Obama administration will continue to provide nonlethal assistance to the rebels but hasn't made a decision on whether to arm them.

Washington and many of its European allies have been reluctant to send sophisticated weapons to Syrian rebels, fearing they could end up in the hands of radical Islamic groups such as the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that have emerged as the most effective and organized fighting force on the opposition's side.

Israel on Tuesday signaled it was prepared to strike Russian deliveries of air defense missiles systems to Syria, portraying them as a threat to the Jewish state and raising the risk of regional conflagration.

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