William Hague (L) speaks with Jean Asselborn (C) and Michael Spindelegger on May 27, 2013 in Brussels
British Foreign Secretary William Hague (L) speaks with Luxembourg Foreign Affairs Minister Jean Asselborn (C) and Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger prior to a Foreign Affairs Council on May 27, 2013, at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. A tortuous EU deal to arm the Syrian opposition is fresh proof of the wide divide separating Britain and France from their partners. © Georges Gobet - AFP/File
William Hague (L) speaks with Jean Asselborn (C) and Michael Spindelegger on May 27, 2013 in Brussels
Claire Rosemberg, AFP
Last updated: May 28, 2013

Tortuous EU move to arm Syria rebels highlights disunity

A tortuous European Union deal to arm the Syrian opposition is fresh proof of the wide divide separating military heavyweights Britain and France from their more pacific-minded partners.

The deal, sealed just before midnight by foreign ministers after 12-odd hours of wrangling, recalled Europe's chaotic all-night euro crisis summits.

After taking the lead in the air campaign in Libya two years ago, Britain and France for months pushed to strengthen the military capacity of Syria's rebel fighters by lifting an arms embargo that was up for renewal next Saturday.

But instead of a joint lifting of the embargo, the ministers agreed to disagree, leaving the 27 member states free from June 1 to decide at their own discretion whether to supply carefully vetted weapons to the main Syrian opposition group, the National Coalition.

There was a joint commitment however to refrain from supplying any weapons for two months, up to August 1, for fear of endangering a US-Russian initiative for a peace conference in Geneva.

Russia warned that the move "directly harms the prospects of convening an international conference", while a National Coalition spokesman said the arms might be "too little, too late".

Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, who led opposition from several countries to the Franco-British push, complained: "The EU should hold the line. We are a peace movement and not a war movement."

His Belgian counterpart Didier Reynders said he regretted that the deal "is not a real European solution."

"But at least we managed to make sure that Britain and France would abstain from shipping arms in the immediate future to give the international conference a chance," he said.

But even this seemed in doubt, as British Foreign Secretary William Hague stressed London was not bound by any two-month deadline.

"We are not taking any decision to send any arms to anyone," Hague said. "But that is not related to a date of August 1. I don't want anyone to think that therefore there is any automatic decision after August 1 or that we are excluded from doing so beforehand."

Britain and France were alone in the 27-nation EU in having both the military capacity and the will to act, said Vivien Perusot at the Brussels-based IFRI think-tank. "Others have the means but not the will; some the will but not the means," Perusot said.

The deal, he added, "highlights the limits of EU diplomacy. Member states want freedom of action but also EU legitimacy."

London's Daily Telegraph warned that the EU approach on Syria "is in danger of turning into another foreign policy fiasco."

"Each state having its own policy is hardly the kind of decisive policy-making that will persuade the Assad gang that their days are numbered," said the newspaper's defence editor Con Coughlin.

Paris and London say the threat to arm the Syrian opposition is a political message to President Bashar al-Assad destined to prod his regime to seek a negotiated solution to the conflict.

But an EU diplomat closely involved in policy-making saw this as "simply naive", saying that "the only meaningful threat for Assad would be Moscow or Tehran cutting off assistance."

German analyst Markus Kaim, from Berlin's SWP think-tank, disagreed, saying the threat of EU states delivering arms to the rebels would work in the interest of peace talks.

"It is especially important before a possible conference in Geneva to have that military option on the table," he said. "Lifting the arms embargo is an important instrument to put pressure on Assad."

Likewise analyst Ian Bond, of the Centre for European Democracy, said in a recent paper that Europe should draw lessons for Syria from the mistakes it made two decades ago in the Balkans.

One of those lessons was to arm and train parties to a conflict who need to be assured they will not face annihilation if defeated.

"There is a strong case for training and equipping forces loyal to the Syrian National Coalition," he said. "But there must also be a credible threat from leading NATO and Middle Eastern powers that they will launch military strikes against Assad's air and ground forces."

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