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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.