US supports EU easing of Syria arms embargo

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States said on Tuesday it supports the European Union's decision to ease an arms embargo on Syria as a means of showing support for rebels despite America's own refusal to provide weapons.

"We welcome the EU action," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters travelling with President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One to New Jersey.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell added: "While it is ultimately an EU decision, we do support the easing of the EU arms embargo as a part of the international community's efforts to demonstrate its full support for the Syrian opposition."

In recent weeks, Washington has been at pains not to criticize its allies Britain and France, who were lobbying for a lifting of the embargo, but the US government had not expressed its support so explicitly, before Tuesday.

Mr Ventrell said the EU action, taken on Monday by the bloc's foreign ministers in Brussels, would give each member state flexibility to support the Syrian opposition battling to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad as it sees fit.

While the United States has so far provided only limited, non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, Mr Ventrell said other countries were providing "different kinds of assistance" to the rebels and doing so "in a coordinated fashion."

The lifting of the embargo is "helpful because it sends a message to the Assad regime that support for the opposition is only going to increase," he said.

The United States has declined rebel requests for the kind of heavy weapons they say are needed to defeat regime forces, fearing that the arms could end up in the hands of radical Islamist groups.

The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 as a series of peaceful protests but escalated into a full-blown civil war when government forces fired on demonstrators.

The EU decision infuriated Russia, a close military ally of Syria that fears a Western intervention there and has blocked international efforts to isolate the regime.

Moscow insisted Tuesday it would deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, saying they were part of existing arms accords.

The presence of the missiles would complicate any attempt to establish a no-fly zone or to secure or destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.

"We have long said that we disagree with and we condemn the continued supply of Russian weapons to the regime, and this includes all class(es) of weapons," Mr Ventrell said.

"We've been clear throughout and very direct with the Russian government about that," he added, one day after talks in Paris between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.