EU divided on issue of Syria arms embargo


The European Union nations remain divided on whether to ease sanctions against Syria to allow for weapons shipments to rebels fighting the regime of Syria's president Bashar Assad.

Britain is the most outspoken proponent of relaxing the arms embargo, but faces opposition from some members that feel more weapons would only increase the killings and tarnish the EU's reputation as a peace broker.

Austria's foreign minister, whose country opposes arms deliveries to the rebels, said that if there is no agreement the arms embargo would collapse.

"The positions are far apart," said German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle. He said it was not clear if the EU foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, will reach an agreement on the issue.

Mr Assad has been using extensive firepower against lightly armed rebel factions. More than 70,000 people have died since the uprising against the Assad regime erupted in March 2011. Meanwhile, both sides have agreed in principle to enter direct talks in Geneva next month.

Several nations say that arming the opposition would create a level playing field that would force Mr Assad into a negotiated settlement.

"It is important to show we are prepared to amend our arms embargo so that the Assad regime gets a clear signal that it has to negotiate seriously," said Foreign Secretary William Hague.

The date, agenda and list of participants for the conference remain unclear, and wide gaps persist about its objectives.

Austria was among those holding out to keep the EU from providing weapons, arguing it would only acerbate an already horrific situation.

"We just received the Nobel Peace Prize and to now go in the direction of intentionally getting involved in a conflict with weapon deliveries, I think that is wrong," Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger said.

"To turn and reverse our line would not help in the conflict," he added.

Any decision would require unanimity among the 27 member states, but failing to come up with a decision would leave options for individual member states open and show a deeply divided EU to the whole world.

"If there is no compromise, then there is no sanctions regime," said Mr Spindelegger. "In my view that would be fatal, also for those who now absolutely want to deliver weapons."

Beyond the moral question of providing arms in a civil war, there are also fears that delivering weapons to the opposition would open the way for extremist groups and terrorists to get hold of weapons that could then be targeted against the EU.

Despite the apparent incompatibility of views, diplomats still hold out hope for a common stand by the time the meeting ends or, at least, until the current arms embargo expires by Friday night.