BRUSSELS: The European Union agreed Monday to lift its embargo against arming Syrian rebels, but no member state intends to send any arms in the coming months for fear of endangering a US-Russia peace initiative.
After a gruelling 12 hours of talks in Brussels, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced the deal to lift the arms embargo against the rebels, while maintaining the remainder of a far-reaching two-year package of sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Without such a deal, the entire set of sanctions, including an assets freeze on Assad and his cronies, and restrictions on trade in oil and financial transactions, would have lapsed at midnight on Friday.
However splits within the EU were exposed.
Britain and France championed the lifting of the arms embargo while Austria, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic were reticent about pouring more arms into a conflict that has already cost some 94,000 lives.
To send arms is “against the principles” of Europe which is a “community of peace”, said Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, a longtime outspoken opponent of the move.
A French official in Paris stressed that “this is a theoretical lifting of the embargo. In concrete terms, there will be no decision on any deliveries before August 1”.
Such a delay will allow for the planned US-Russia sponsored international peace conference on Syria, which it is hoped both the Assad regime and opposition figures will attend next month.
The deal agreed in Brussels leaves the decision to supply arms to the rebels up to each nation. Ministers nonetheless vowed to stick to safeguards against misuse and to respect EU rules on arms exports.
“None of the member states have the intention of actually providing arms at this stage,” added Frans Timmermans, the Dutch minister who tried to steer a compromise.
“Quite a lot of arms are already going to the wrong hands,” he added. “The parties to the conflict don’t have a shortage of arms, frankly.”
Hague stressed that Britain, while championing the move, also had “no immediate” plans to supply weapons to the rebels fighting Assad.
He said Britain saw only a political solution and a diplomatically supported solution for Syria but that Monday’s ground-breaking decision “sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime of what we think of the continued brutality and murder and criminality of this regime”.
In Istanbul Khaled al-Saleh, spokesman for Syria’s opposition Coalition called the EU decision “the moment of truth that we’ve been waiting for for months”.
He was attending Coalition talks which descended into total disarray after several days of negotiations, failing to agree on whether to participate in the US-Russian peace initiative, particularly if the Assad regime is also represented there.
The Syrian regime has agreed “in principle” to attend the so-called “Geneva 2” peace initiative.
The first Geneva talks, last June, produced a peace roadmap which failed to win support, triggering the resignation of Kofi Annan as special envoy on Syria.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left the Brussels talks before the finish to meet in Paris with his Russian and US counterparts, Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry, over efforts to convene the Syria peace conference in Geneva.
However Lavrov admitted it would not be easy to organise any meaningful Syria peace talks.
Speaking after the talks in a Paris hotel, Lavrov said that ensuring the success of the proposed peace conference was “a very tall order”.
Kerry has warned that unless both sides come to the table, the world will witness “the continued tragic disintegration of a country that will go down further into more violence and more bloodshed and more destruction”.
The two men have been working to organise the talks under the aegis of the United Nations to bring together the Syrian regime and the opposition in a bid to end a bloody conflict that has raged for more than two years.
The push to bring the warring sides together is ever-more pressing amid reports of “horrific” rights violations and mounting evidence that chemical weapons are being used.
French Foreign Minister Fabius said there were “mounting suspicions” that chemical weapons were being used in Syria, as UN human rights chief Navi Pillay decried the “horrific” level of rights violations.
Meanwhile on the ground fighting raged between rebels and regime troops now aided by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
Opposition fighters battled regime troops, aided by Hezbollah, for control of the key rebel stronghold of Qusayr.
Four people died in a bomb attack in a regime-controlled district of the central Syrian city of Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog reported.
With the much-publicised involvement of Hezbollah threatening to pull Lebanon deep into the conflict, peace talks are becoming increasingly pressing.