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Amid disunity, EU lifts Syrian arms embargo

The European Union, led by France and Great Britain, has decided to lift its arms embargo on the Syrian opposition. Economic sanctions, however, still remain.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday (27.05.2013) decided to extend economic sanctions against Syria, but not the bloc's joint arms embargo. The latter is now set to expire on Saturday, June 1. The question of whether weapons will be supplied to the insurgents is now up to the individual states, a resolution pushed through by Britain and France.

Not everyone at the summit was happy with the decision, with Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger accusing his British and French colleagues of indirect extortion. But outwardly, most have tried to present Monday's decision as a consensus.

The criteria by which rebels could obtain weapons were agreed upon together, said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius: only democratic-minded forces will be supported.

His British counterpart William Hague promised that the UK would only send weapons "in company with other nations, in carefully controlled circumstances, and in compliance with international law."

"This decision today gives us the flexibility in the future to respond to a worsening situation or to the refusal of the Assad regime to negotiate," Hague said.

William Hague (L) speaks with Jean Asselborn (C) and Michael Spindelegger (R) GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)

Hague (left) and Spindelegger (right) found it difficult to come to a compromise

Struggle for unity

The foreign ministers struggled for hours to find a common position. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned on his arrival in Brussels that "the more united Europe is acting, the greater is our influence to overcome the current violence in Syria."

His Luxembourg counterpart Jean Asselborn was even more dramatic: "If we are unable to come to a compromise, that would be the worst. At that point, we could just close up shop."

Despite these pre-summit sentiments, Monday's dispute over the arms embargo made waves. "How long can we go on with people having every weapon that's ever been devised dropped on them, while most of the world denies them the means to defend themselves?" Hague asked rhetorically.

France's Fabius also spoke of a "growing suspicion" that President Bashar Assad's troops were using chemical weapons, with Hague adding that Europe's inaction was promoting extremism. He said his support for weapons would be part of the diplomatic strategy at June's planned international conference on Syria in Geneva.

"It's important to show that we are prepared to amend our arms embargo so that the Assad regime gets a clear signal that it has to negotiate seriously," said Hague.

Fears of an arms race

The Austrians stood on the opposite side of the debate, with Spindelegger saying that ending the arms embargo would be a 180-degree turn of previous European policy. He said the EU was a union of peace and had to stay out of wars, adding that arms sales would not help the Syrian people.

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad REUTERS/George Ourfalian

There is "growing suspicion" that Assad's troops are using chemical weapons

"If we deliver more weapons [to Syria] it would not necessarily lead to peace, but could instead lead to an arms race," he said.

There is also widespread concern in the EU that weapons could fall into the hands of extremists, especially with the opposition appearing more fragmented than ever. Unlike Hague, Spindelegger believes that a decision on weapons would jeopardize the Geneva Conference. Instead of an arms race, he would like to see "a race of political ideas on how to resolve the conflict."

Good intentions

In the end, the fears that the end of the arms embargo would mean an end to all sanctions against the regime were unfounded, as all the economic sanctions against Assad, his government and his supporters remained in place.

After a long day of debate, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton tried to support the good intentions of each participant by saying all positions were worthy. "There is a strong spirit of trying to find a European solution," she said. "Each individual is trying to find a way to best support the Syrian people."

But Ashton's comments could not disguise the EU's inner conflict. Rarely before has a foreign ministers' meeting seen opinions differ so violently and clash so publicly.

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