France: No arms for Syrian opposition

By JIM HEINTZ | March 15, 2012 | 8:18 AM EDT

In this March 9, 2012 citizen journalism image provided by the Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, smoke rise from a building that was shelled by the Syrian army, at Jeb al-Jandali neighborhood in Homs province, central Syria. Two prominent Syrian dissidents said Wednesday they have quit the main opposition group that emerged from the year-old uprising against the regime in Damascus in protest over what one of the men described as an "autocratic" organization. (AP Photo/Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS HANDOUT PHOTO

PARIS (AP) — France's foreign minister threw cold water Thursday on weapons requests by the Syrian rebel forces, saying arming the Syrian opposition could lead to catastrophic civil war.

The Syrian opposition is divided as it marks one year since their uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime, and diplomatic efforts to end fighting that has killed at least 7,500 people appear to be stalling.

Rebel forces are asking for new weapons after defeats by government troops. But leading world powers such as the United States and France seem wary of getting embroiled in a new conflict after the NATO-led airstrikes in Libya.

"The Syrian people are deeply divided, and if we give arms to a certain faction of the Syrian opposition, we would make a civil war among Christians, Alawites, Sunnis and Shiites," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on France-Culture radio Thursday.

France, Syria's former colonial ruler, is backing the opposition against Assad and pushing for Assad's departure. Juppe says arming the opposition could lead to "a catastrophe even larger than the one that exists today."

The comments echoed those from President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday, who warned of an international response that could lead to more deaths.

"When we see what's happening on television, you know, our natural instinct is to act," Obama said. "One of the things that I think both of us have learned ... is that it's very important for us to make sure that we have thought through all of our actions before we take those steps."

After two significant defeats at the hands of Syrian government troops, the country's rebel forces are low on cash and running out of weapons.

"Send us money, we're desperate. Send us weapons," Ahmad Kassem, who coordinates military operations for the rebel Free Syrian Army, told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. "We don't need fighters. We have excess men who can fight, but we need weapons to protect our land and honor."

Many Syrian opposition members are in Paris but divisions have kept them from forming a single force that the international community is rallying behind.

Juppe also expressed frustration at Russia's continued support for Assad, while acknowledging that it's in part linked to Russia's anger at the international military campaign in Libya.

"Russia ... considers we went too far," Juppe said. "They are asking us ... to pay for the Libya operation."

Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Syria's Assad were Russian allies before uprisings last year started sweeping away entrenched Arab leaders.

Moscow, Syria's key source of weapons, says it's continuing to supply arms that could be used to fend off external threats — but not against protesters. Russia backs Assad's claim that the uprising is a foreign conspiracy and that weapons and militants have been brought into Syria from abroad.

Syrians first took to the streets in March last year to call for political reforms, and the protests spread as Assad's security forces violently cracked down. Some in the opposition have since taken up arms to fight.

Saudi Arabia said Thursday it's closing its embassy in Damascus, after several other countries did the same.