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World eyes possible arms race in Syria

BEIRUT -- Russia yesterday 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, and a rebel general said he's "very disappointed" weapons won't come fast enough to help opposition fighters defend a strategic Syrian town.

The European Union decision, coupled with Russia's renewed pledge to supply Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime with advanced missiles, could transform a brutal civil war into an East-West proxy fight. Israel, meanwhile, threatened to strike such air defense missile systems if delivered to Syria, portraying them as a threat to the Jewish state and raising the risk of regional conflagration.

The possibility of an arms race in Syria overshadowed attempts by the United States and Russia to bring representatives of the Assad regime and Syria's political opposition to peace talks at an international conference in Geneva, possibly next month.

The talks, though seen as a long shot, constitute the international community's only plan for ending the conflict that began more than two years ago and has killed more than 70,000 people.

In Syria, the commander of the main Western-backed umbrella group of rebel brigades told The Associated Press he urgently needs Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to prevent further regime gains on the battlefield. The rebels' weapons are no match for the regime's modern tanks and warplanes, he said.

"We are very disappointed," Gen. Salim Idris, military chief of the Free Syrian Army, said of the European Union's apparent decision not to send weapons until after the Geneva conference -- if at all.

Britain, which along with France had pushed for ending the EU arms embargo, wants to use the threat of arming the rebels as leverage to ensure that Assad negotiates in good faith.

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