European Union governments gave the go-ahead for weapons sales to the Syrian opposition, seeking to increase pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s regime after two years of civil war.
The U.K., the prime mover behind the EU decision, said that it wouldn’t immediately start to supply the rebels with arms and that other economic sanctions will be prolonged by 12 months.
“It was a difficult decision for some countries, but it was necessary and right to reinforce international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement late yesterday after 13 hours of wrangling among foreign ministers in Brussels. “It was important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so.”
Also backed by France, the arms-sales authorization was intended to narrow the options of Assad, who has clung to power throughout the civil war that has claimed at least 80,000 lives and flooded neighboring countries with refugees.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the move could worsen the Syrian crisis and damage prospects for negotiations at a peace conference proposed for next month by Russia and the U.S.
“The EU is pouring oil on the flames of the conflict in Syria and reducing the chances of holding the conference,” Ryabkov told reporters in Moscow. He also said that Russia won’t cancel a contract to deliver S-300 ground-to-air missiles to Assad’s forces, calling the anti-aircraft and anti-missile system a “stabilizing factor” that could prevent a wider conflict.
At the EU, Austria led the resistance to a change in European policy, saying that sending military hardware would undermine efforts to promote a negotiated solution and betray the principles that earned the EU the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
“We just won the peace prize,” said Austria’s foreign minister, Michael Spindelegger. “The people in Syria being killed in this conflict wouldn’t benefit if we ship weapons. It would result in an arms race.”
Spindelegger threatened to withdraw Austria’s United Nations peacekeepers from the Golan Heights out of concern for their safety if the Syrian conflict escalates.
European countries were freed to make case-by-case decisions on arms sales, making sure of “adequate safeguards” that the weapons will be delivered to the opposition and be used to protect civilians, according to an EU statement. No timetable was given for starting the shipments.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who struggled to enforce a common line across the 27-nation body, told reporters that “you’re quite right to point to the fact that member states may take different decisions.”
The action follows a meeting last week in Amman, Jordan, among countries backing the opposition, at which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. and its allies will expand support for the Syrian rebels and consider all options short of deploying U.S. troops if diplomacy doesn’t halt the bloody civil war.
While the EU foreign ministers were talking, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Paris to discuss possible participants at the international peace conference they have proposed to seek negotiations toward a cease-fire and a transitional government in Syria.
“We concentrated on the need to determine the participants in the conference, first of all from the Syrian side -- the government and the opposition groups,” Lavrov told reporters after the meeting.
The diplomats also discussed whether to expand the group of countries invited to the conference “to include all key outside players who have influence on the situation on the ground,” Lavrov said, in a reference to Iran.
Russia has proposed including Iran in a peace conference. “Considering the influence of Tehran in the region and the role it plays, it wouldn’t be right not to invite it to this meeting,” Ryabkov said today in Moscow.
Countries supporting the Syrian rebel forces didn’t reach an agreement on Iran’s participation when they met in Jordan last week.
“The chances for success are there,” Lavrov said. “We will do everything in our power to use those chances to make them realized.”
The U.S. and Russia “are deeply committed” to organizing talks on establishing a transitional government “to allow the people of Syria to decide the future of Syria,” Kerry said.
It was the third meeting between the two men this month, and the sixth so far this year, with the Syrian crisis dominating their talks. Kerry and Lavrov then met with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius after he returned from Brussels.
While Assad’s government has agreed to attend an international conference next month aimed at ending 26 months of conflict, opposition forces haven’t yet chosen their new leadership and haven’t pledged to participate.
Pressure has been building in Washington among some Democrats and Republicans in Congress for the U.S. to do more militarily to stop the bloodshed, with calls for providing weaponry to the rebels and to establish a no-fly zone.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, crossed the Turkish border and went into Syria yesterday, spokesman Brian Rogers said, without disclosing details. The trip was reported earlier today by the Daily Beast website. McCain backs increasing support for the rebels.
At last week’s meeting in Jordan by 11 countries backing Syrian rebels, Kerry condemned intervention on Assad’s behalf by Lebanese Hezbollah militants and Iran. Hezbollah’s “active military support to the Assad regime” is worsening sectarian tensions in Syria and “perpetuates the regime’s campaign of terror against its own people,” Kerry said.