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Syria says rebels will take years to match army's strength

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A decision by Western and Arab countries to arm rebels fighting to topple Syria's President Bashar al-Assad poses a danger to peace talks, the Syrian foreign minister said on Monday.

Walid al-Moualem told a news conference in Damascus that the opposition had little hope of matching the Syrian army's strength despite a pledge by the states that make up the "Friends of Syria" to increase military support to the rebels.

"If they expect or fantasize that they can create a balance of power, I think they will need to wait years for that to happen," he said during the televised news conference.

Western and Arab countries as well as Turkey, who have thrown their weight behind the opposition, said their decision to arm the rebels was to rebalance the conflict in which more than 93,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians.

Assad is seen as having gained momentum, seizing a strategic town near the Lebanese border which helps him cement control between the capital Damascus and his stronghold on the Mediterranean coast.

Moualem said that a move towards openly giving military support to the rebels would encourage terrorism and that radical Islamist groups linked to al Qaeda would benefit the most.

"The decision in Doha is dangerous...because it aims to prolong the crisis, to extend the violence and the killing, and to encourage the terrorists to carry out their crimes," he said.

The United States and Russia are planning a peace conference in Geneva between the opposition and Assad's government.

"Arming the opposition will obstruct Geneva. Arming the opposition will kill more of our people," Moualem said. "We head to Geneva not to hand over power to another side.

"Whoever on the other side imagines this, I advise them not to go to Geneva."

The government was willing to discuss forming a broad-based government of national unity in Geneva, he added.

The Syrian conflict began as peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule, but descended into a civil war that has drawn in foreign fighters to both sides of the fight, increasing regional ethnic and sectarian tensions.

Syria's opposition, led mostly by the Sunni Muslim majority, has attracted foreign Islamist fighters. Shi'ites from Iraq and Lebanon have joined the fight on the side of Assad, who is from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Moualem said Syria wanted a ceasefire in order to hold talks at Geneva.

"We are insistent that if Geneva is held there must be a ceasefire, and we are ready to study mechanisms for observing it on the basis that neighboring states abide, by halting training, arming and financing and sending them to Syrian territory," he said.

In Brussels, a European Union report said the bloc should support a political settlement but also ease sanctions to help people in rebel-held areas, following steps to exempt the rebels from oil and banking sanctions.

The report from the EU's executive Commission and foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also said the two-year-old Syrian conflict and a refugee exodus were putting severe strain on Syria's neighbors, threatening the internal stability of Lebanon and Jordan,

Having taken in more than half a million refugees, Lebanon authorities were unable to cope alone, the report said.

"It is imperative to shield the country from the efforts of some of the local and regional actors to wage the Syrian struggle on Lebanese soil," it said.

Lebanon has suffered growing violence at home as the conflict turns into a proxy war along sectarian lines. Lebanon's Hezbollah Shi'ite militia has joined the war on Assad's side.

(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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