UK seeks EU support on arming Syrian rebels

18.02.13 @ 12:27

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - Britain's William Hague was almost alone on Monday (18 February) in saying EU countries should give weapons to Syrian rebels.

  • Should EU ministers lift sanctions on delivery of weapons to rebels in Syria? (Photo: Travel Aficionado)

Coming into a foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels, he told media: "We have given them [the rebels] strong political and diplomatic support. We have also given them assistance in terms of equipment to save people's lives. But I think there's a broader range of equipment that we can give them."

The EU's arms embargo on Syria expires at the end of the month.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel force, which is currently fighting the Russian-armed regime with home-made weapons, has called for help with anti-aircraft defences to stop jets from bombing civilians.

It has also warned that the status quo is helping better-armed anti-regime jihadists to gain popular support.

An EU diplomat told this website that France, the former colonial power in Syria, has indicated it would back the UK on relaxing the EU arms ban in order to arm the FSA.

Another EU diplomat said: "Britain is not isolated. There is a long way to go in the discussion and no decisions will be taken today."

Several ministers voiced concerns on Monday morning, however.

Belgium's Didier Reynders said: "If we lift the embargo, we have to be sure we can control the distribution of arms … the idea is not to arm the extremists in the country."

Bulgaria, Cyprus, Italy, Romania and Spain said the main priority is to find a "political solution" and to ship more humanitarian aid.

Sweden's Carl Bildt said EU arms might block any chance of getting Russia to stop supporting Syria in the UN Security Council. "If we take steps that divide the UN even further that plays, in the short term, into the hands of the regime," he noted.

The Czech republic, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Poland were the strongest sceptics.

"We have to make sure we don't contribute to the further militarisation of Syria," Ireland's Eamonn Gilmore said. "We think that pouring fuel onto the fire is very risky," Poland's Radek Sikorski noted.

For her part, Vesna Pusic, the foreign minister of Croatia, which is set to join the EU in July, predicted: "It seems the current sanctions will be prolonged for three months and then we will discuss the matter again."

Hezbollah

The EU Council is also to see a debate on Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The Bulgarian foreign minister, Nikolay Mladenov, will at lunch brief ministers on an investigation into the killing of five Jewish tourists and a local bus driver in Burgas, on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast, last year.

Mladenov told press on Monday the attack "was organised by people linked to the military wing of Hezbollah."

He also called for the EU to list the group, or a part of it, as a terrorist entity. "We will want to have collective measures in the EU to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.

He noted that Bulgarian security services will brief counterparts in EU interior ministries in the coming weeks.

The foreign ministers are not planning to take any decisions on Hezbollah for now.

But EU officials have in the past warned that foreign policy questions, such as whether listing the group might destabilise Lebanon, will be a factor in the Union's decision.

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