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EU split over Syria arms ban

Source : Agencies | 27 May 2013

Britain and Austria clashed on Monday over whether the European Union should ease an arms embargo to help Syrian rebels, threatening the unity of the bloc's Syria policy.

Britain and France are pushing hard for the easing of the arms embargo to support rebels ahead of a peace conference sponsored by the United States and Russia expected next month.

Austria leads the camp of five of the EU's 27 governments firmly opposed to sending arms that they believe could deepen the two-year-old Syrian conflict that has cost 80,000 lives.

All EU sanctions on Syria could collapse unless the EU can agree unanimously on what to do about the arms embargo before it expires on June 1.

The debate has gained urgency because of recent military gains by President Bashar al-Assad's troops and because of allegations of chemical weapons use by the government side.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, arriving for crucial EU talks on the issue, signalled that Britain was prepared to see EU sanctions fall apart rather than bow on his demand to give more support to rebels.

"It is important to be doing the right thing for Syria. That is more important than whether the EU is able to stick together on every detail of this," he told reporters.

If the EU could not have a unified sanctions policy, "each country will have to ensure it has its own sanctions," he said.

Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger was equally firm in ruling out arming the rebels.

"We should not let weapons talk in Syria but political representatives," he said. "I think the European Union has to hold the line ... We are a peace community. We would like to remain a peace community."

PEACE TALKS

Opponents say taking a decision now to allow arms to be sent to the rebels could undermine the planned peace conference.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said he and German counterpart Guido Westerwelle were leading the search for a compromise.

A paper drawn up by EU diplomats set out a possible compromise under which EU governments would agree to lift the arms embargo, but to suspend the lifting for a year, according to an EU diplomat.

But after two months, the EU would agree to look at the situation again and consider whether to lift the embargo immediately, the diplomat said. That would allow time to see whether the planned peace talks produced any results.

There could be a host of conditions agreed for lifting sanctions to meet the concerns of many governments that the weapons could end up falling into the hands of militants.

Ministers from five EU states opposed to amending the embargo - Austria, Sweden, Finland, Romania and the Czech Republic - met separately and agreed they could accept an extension of the arms ban for a shorter period than the current three months before reviewing it again, an EU diplomat said.

However, extending the arms embargo unchanged is unlikely to be acceptable to Britain.

Many other EU governments, while not keen to deepen the EU's involvement in the Syrian conflict, are open to a compromise to maintain EU unity on Syria.

Britain and France say they have no immediate plan to arm the rebels but argue that easing the EU embargo would strengthen the hand of the West and the opposition in the negotiations.

Austria has warned that it could stop patrolling the U.N. ceasefire line on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria if the EU arms embargo was lifted.

While the rebels are receiving arms from Arab states through Jordan and Turkey, Western powers are concerned that Islamist militants fighting Assad could also use such weapons against them. The United States has also held back from supplying arms.