World Bulletin/News Desk
Britain has launched a push to have the European Union's arms embargo on Syrian rebels lifted, saying doing so would strengthen the moderate opposition and ensure the EU could respond to any chemical weapons attack.
EU member states are sharply divided over easing the embargo for the rebels. Negotiations over whether to take such a bold step are expected to run until close to June 1, the expiry date of the existing sanctions against Syria. EU foreign ministers will meet to discuss the issue on May 27.
Several EU governments are resisting French and British efforts to get the embargo lifted, concerned that the move could escalate the two-year-old Syrian conflict.
In a discussion paper circulated to EU partners in the past week and seen by Reuters on Wednesday, Britain set out two options for amending current sanctions to allow weapons to be supplied to the opposition Syrian National Coalition.
The first option would fully exempt the coalition from the EU arms embargo while a second option would remove the word "non-lethal" from the sanctions language, opening the way for weapons to be sent, the four-page paper said.
The renewed EU debate comes days after U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the United States is rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels.
The 27-nation EU is also looking at further ways to give an economic boost to the Syrian opposition after EU governments agreed last month to allow purchases of oil from the opposition, EU diplomats said.
One idea under discussion is how to amend bank sanctions to ease financial transactions with rebel-held areas.
The British document said the situation in Syria, where more than 70,000 people have died in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, was "deteriorating sharply" and the EU needed to raise pressure on Assad to negotiate.
Easing the arms embargo would strengthen the moderate opposition, it said. "We need to head off any reliance by the moderate Syrian opposition on Islamist-backed armed groups."
"Crucially, it will ensure we can respond flexibly to a major escalation in the conflict, such as chemical weapons attacks," the authors of the paper added.
The British document is intended as a basis for debate in an EU working group that has already begun discussions on whether or how to amend the EU sanctions. Most diplomats think agreement is unlikely before foreign ministers meet in late May, although the issue may also be discussed by EU leaders on May 22.
Despite the new British ideas, several member states, including Austria, Spain and Sweden, have strong reservations about lifting the arms embargo for the rebels, EU diplomats say.
Austria is one of the staunchest opponents, saying lifting the ban could force it to pull out its troops from the U.N. peacekeeping force on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, because it would call into question the EU's impartiality.
Despite warning that weapons could fall into the hands of militants, Berlin is seen as open to a compromise, the diplomats said. Germany is working with Britain on how to change financial sanctions to help the rebels and pressure Assad.
Russia, a leading arms supplier to the Syrian government, has warned the EU not to lift its arms embargo on the rebels.
Britain tried to address concerns about diversion of weapons by saying any equipment would be supplied only to the Syrian National Coalition, which last month rejected "all forms of terrorism" and vowed to keep weapons out of the "wrong hands".
If the EU amends the embargo, it would need to rigorously monitor how any equipment was used, Britain said.
"We have worked over many months to build effective relations with the opposition and have gradually extended our network of contacts. We already identify the recipients of any assistance very carefully," it said.
Last Mod: 08 Mayıs 2013, 23:17