European Union's foreign ministers still undecided over whether to arm rebels, as UK and France lead push to lift ban
Britain and France were locked in a diplomatic battle to get the European Union to lift its arms embargo on Syria on Monday, in order to supply weapons to what they call the "moderate" opposition to the Assad regime.
A long day of negotiations between the EU's 27 foreign ministers saw Britain and France opposing plans to shelve a decision on arming the opposition until August, while Austria and the Czech Republic spearheaded the opposition to the Anglo-French push; with the Czechs supporting the Israeli line against sending arms to Syria and the Austrians alarmed at the impact on their UN peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel.
The session appeared to be converging on a compromise on Monday evening, with agreement to renew the EU sanctions package against Syria, which expires on Friday, while amending it slightly to allow some tightly circumscribed types of weaponry to be shipped.
The 27 have to agree unanimously. Without agreement, the entire sanctions regime could collapse by the weekend in a major debacle for EU foreign policymaking.
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said Paris supported a decision that would maintain an EU consensus, but would allow "the rebels to have the necessary arms and that the arms could be monitored."
The foreign secretary, William Hague, joined the French, arguing that supplying arms to "moderate" opposition forces would lead to less killing in Syria. Others argued the opposite, that arms supplies would only escalate the conflict.
Several countries – notably Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden – oppose it for fear that weapons might fall into the hands of Islamic extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Germany has been trying to fashion a compromise.
Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, said he would try to "build bridges", but consensus looked elusive with participants delivering very contradictory statements. Both Westerwelle and Hague said the EU could fail to agree a common position on the sanctions package that expires automatically on Friday unless there is agreement.
Hague added that if the negotiations collapse, individual EU states would have to mount their own national sanctions against the Assad regime.
Britain and France have been pressing for a partial lifting of the arms embargo to the moderate sections of the Syrian opposition since last November. Hague has argued that lifting the arms embargo would complement, rather than contradict, a peace process since a militarily strengthened Syrian opposition can force the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to the negotiating table.
Fabius returned early to Paris to meet John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, to try to organise Syrian peace talks in Geneva next month. No date has been set for the talks. It is not clear who will attend. If there was any agreement on easing the arms embargo, it was likely to delay any possible weapons shipments until after the Geneva talks took place.
In Brussels, Turkey's foreign minister voiced strong support for the Anglo-French position. But last week in the US, Ankara was strongly rebuffed in its hawkish position against Assad by the White House.
Oxfam's head of arms control, Anna Macdonald, said: "Allowing the EU arms embargo to end could have devastating consequences. There are no easy answers when trying to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but sending more arms and ammunition clearly isn't one of them.
"Transferring more weapons to Syria can only exacerbate a hellish scenario for civilians. If the UK and France are to live up to their own commitments – including those set out in the new Arms Trade Treaty — they simply must not send weapons to Syria."
The UK-French attempt to lift the arms embargo has not been made any easier by the continued lack of unity within the rebel movement. Talks failed on Sunday to end a factional dispute over proposals to dilute Qatar's influence on rebel forces, with Saudi Arabia angling to play a greater role now that Iranian-backed Hezbollah is openly fighting for Assad.
The dispute over how to respond to the civil war in Syria has exposed deep divisions in Europe. Senior European officials say much of the debate is "hypocritical" because some of the countries calling for a lifting of the embargo do not have the weapons to deliver or have no intention of taking part. They also point out that the White House and the State Department appear to be similarly split between hawks and doves.
"There is very strong opposition to a complete lifting of the embargo," said a senior official.
If the meeting agreed to a slight easing of the arms ban, it remained to be seen if it would be enough for Britain and France to accept.
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