masked syrian rebel fighter 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BRUSSELS - Attempts to reach a European Union agreement on supplying arms to the Syrian opposition collapsed on Monday, freeing Britain and France to go it alone in arming the rebels starting in August if they decide to do so.
Britain and France achieved what they wanted out of a marathon negotiating session in Brussels on Monday but it was at the expense of EU unity.
The refusal of London and Paris to go along with the arms embargo could have caused the collapse of all EU sanctions against Syria, embarrassing the EU and handing a victory to Syrian President Bashar Assad. EU ministers managed to avert that by agreeing to reinstate all of the restrictions except for the arms embargo on the rebels.
EU sanctions on Syria that will remain in place include asset freezes and travel bans on Assad and senior Syrian officials, as well as curbs on trade, infrastructure projects and the transport sector.
London and Paris have argued for months that Europe must send a strong signal of support for rebels fighting Assad by giving the green light for EU arms deliveries, even though they say they have not decided yet to actually supply arms.
But they ran into strong opposition from other EU governments, led by Austria and Sweden, which argued that sending more weapons to the region would increase violence and spread instability.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the EU meeting had effectively ended the EU's arms embargo on the Syrian opposition.
"While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate," Hague told reporters.
Britain and France have made a commitment not to deliver arms to the Syrian opposition "at this stage," an EU declaration said. But EU officials said the commitment effectively expires on Aug. 1.
Britain and France were seeking to increase the opposition's leverage in planned US and Russian co-sponsored peace talks expected next month by raising the prospect they could supply arms to the rebels if the political process made no headway.
France said on Tuesday it reserved the right to send arms immediately to Syrian rebels fighting a two-year-old insurgency but had no plans to do so, despite an agreement by European countries to put off potential deliveries until August 1.
French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot told reporters Paris hoped there would be a breakthrough in finding a political solution over the next two months, but that the EU decision was a political declaration that had no legal basis.
When asked if that meant France could deliver weapons before Aug. 1 if it deemed it necessary, Lalliot said: "Yes."