Syria arms embargo lifted: Britain and France force EU to relax ban on supplying weapons to rebels

William Hague says outcome gives 'flexibility' to deal with worsening situation

Brussels

A ban on arming the Syrian opposition forces collapsed last night after European Union foreign ministers failed to reach an agreement on amending it, opening up the possibility for Britain and France to start supplying weapons to the rebels.

While British Foreign Secretary William Hague stressed that the decision in Brussels was aimed at sending a political signal and London had no plans to start arming the rebels, he said the outcome of the EU summit gave them “flexibility” to deal with a worsening situation.

“We have brought to an end the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition,” Mr Hague said, adding that the move “sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime”.

He and the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, failed however to convince all other members of the bloc of their position, with some countries led by Austria arguing that sending more weapons to a country already awash with arms and to a fractured opposition with factions linked to al-Qa'ida would only worsen a conflict which has already killed 80,000 people.

The Austrian Foreign Minister, Michael Spindelegger, said that they were “greatly concerned” about the possible shipment of more arms to the conflict zone, adding that the EU was “a peace movement not a war movement”.

The arms embargo was linked to a whole package of other sanctions imposed on President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition in 2011, and unanimous agreement was needed to amend or renew the embargo. As that unanimity was not reached, it automatically expires at the end of the week.

The other sanctions against Assad also technically expire, but EU foreign ministers have agreed to rebuild all those sanctions so they would remain in force beyond 1 June. “The agreement on that is totally strong,” said the Italian Foreign Minister, Emma Bonino

While neither France nor Britain as yet have plans to arm the rebels, they believe the threat of such action is enough to show President Assad that the military balance is shifting and force him to the negotiating table, while also strengthening the rebels' hand.

Lending urgency to calls for more action, Mr Fabius, said earlier that more evidence had emerged that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people.

But those countries which opposed lifting the embargo said it would be impossible to monitor where the arms would end up, with hundreds of disparate rebels groups operating on the ground, many of them linked to al-Qa'ida and other extremist Islamist groups.

The final text issued by the foreign ministers said nations must do everything possible to ensure the weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.

The disarray of the Syrian opposition has also not helped the case of countries like Britain and France which favour deepening their involvement in the Syrian civil war. The opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, blocked a bid by a liberal opposition group to join its ranks, in a sign of the strengthening the influence of the Islamic groups.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Paris to discuss a peace conference in Geneva next month, which both the opposition and the regime have agreed in principle to attend.

Mr Spindelegger said he was not “full of amusement” at the prospect of the EU attending those talks without a fully united position, but analysts say Assad will be playing much closer attention to voices from Washington and Moscow, rather than the bickering Europeans.

“In the west, we think somehow that a decision in Brussels would really shift the calculations of Assad: I think we're beyond this particular point,” said Fawaz Gerges, head of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.

“The question for the Syrian regime is not what Europe is doing, the question is the United States. As long as the United States remains reluctant to either intervene directly in the conflict militarily or arm the rebels, the regime believes that it can still deal with the rebels on its own terms.”

Arms embargo: How nations stand

Against lifting

Austria

One of the most vocal opponents of the proposal to lift the embargo. It has raised concerns that weapons would fall into the hands of extremists. It has gone so far as to threaten that it could stop patrolling the UN ceasefire line on the Golan Heights, on the Israel-Syria border. It is joined by the Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland and Romania in opposing the removal of the embargo.

For

UK

The UK is by no means eager to start flooding Syria with weapons. The Foreign Secretary William Hague has made it clear publicly that removing the embargo would strengthen the Syrian opposition’s hand in negotiations with the government due to take place next month. Doing so, he argues, will put pressure on Assad to take the talks seriously.

Turkey

The Turkish government, which has  been providing assistance to thousands of Syrian refugees on its territory, has argued that the EU is morally obliged to provide arms to the rebels for defensive purposes and to “prevent a massacre”.

On the fence

Germany

Guido Westerwelle, the German Foreign Minister, said he would try to “build bridges” at the EU meeting, and has so far acted as an arbitrator between other powers. Germany’s primary concern has been that the EU present a united front.

Outside the EU

United States

Caution has been the key word for the US since the conflict began. Although it has sent hundreds of millions of dollars in non-lethal aid, President Barack Obama is reluctant to send military equipment for fear it could be used against it, or its ally, Israel.

Russia

As Assad’s strongest ally, it is predictable that Russia opposes arming the rebels. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned that arming rebels would breach international law. Russia has stressed the need for a political solution, while it provides military and political support to the regime.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent