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26th Jan 2020

US backs EU arms shipments to Syria rebels

  • Syrian rebels have no way to stop Russian-made regime jets from bombing their positions (Photo: a.anis)

The US has endorsed an Anglo-French proposal to let EU countries arm Syrian rebels, but Israel is against the move.

A US state department official told EUobserver in a written note on Friday (24 May) that: "Amending the EU arms embargo on Syria to allow for the provision of lethal assistance to the opposition is ultimately a decision for EU member states."

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The contact added: "However … the US strongly supports the easing of the EU arms embargo as part of the international community’s collective efforts to demonstrate its full support for the Syrian opposition and to continue to pressure the regime."

The question will take centre stage at an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on Monday.

A British diplomat said London wants to include a new line in the EU sanctions document which says EU states can ship "equipment which protects civilians" to "moderate" opposition forces.

France and Italy also support the move.

Several EU countries - notably Austria, the Czech republic, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden - oppose it for fears that British or French anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons given to the secularist Free Syrian Army might end up in the hands of Islamist groups, such as the Al-Nusra Front.

"Who can guarantee that radical forces, strong enemies of Israel for example, won't receive such modern weapons systems?" a Czech diplomat noted.

In an unusual divergence in Israeli and US policy, an Israeli diplomatic source said Israel would prefer the EU to err on the side of caution.

"We're not in favour of introducing yet more weapons into Syria," the Israeli contact told this website.

Meanwhile, a more neutral group - including Belgium, Denmark and Germany - shares concerns on proliferation but wants to avoid an EU split or seeing the whole sanctions document fall by the wayside.

The sanctions text - which also includes a freeze on Syrian regime assets in EU banks - lapses at midnight on 31 May unless there is an EU consensus on a new version.

A diplomat from one of the neutral countries said his nation will not itself ship weapons, but will not stand in Britain's way either.

Talks are expected to go the wire.

For its part, the European External Action Service (EEAS) is drafting a paper containing three options for ministers to consider: lifting the embargo, keeping the embargo, or a compromise between the two.

The compromise option is the most likely outcome.

But there are plenty of details to scrap over.

A diplomat from one of the pro-arms-export countries said questions include: whether to create a "white list" of which weapons to permit or a "black list" of which ones to forbid; what kind of assurances to seek from rebel authorities; and timing.

The Syrian government has said it is willing to meet with rebel leaders next month at an event organised by the US and Russia in Geneva, dangling the prospect of a political solution.

"Some people say we shouldn't do anything until Geneva. Some say we should stipulate that we will relax the embargo unless the Geneva process achieves this or that," the pro-arms-export diplomat noted.

Another EU source added that if there is an agreement on Monday, it will be accompanied by formal EU Council conclusions.

But there is also division on what to say about Syria in the EU statement.

The text is likely to: back the Geneva process; voice support for the Syrian opposition; urge the UN to mobilise its war crimes court; praise Jordan and Turkey for helping refugees; call for better access for aid workers; and voice worry about use of chemical weapons.

It is also set to condemn violence and human rights abuses.

But pro-arms-export countries want to say that regime forces are guilty of abuse on a greater scale than rebels, while the anti-arms-export states want equally tough language on both sides in the conflict.

"The tragedy is, that there are no good solutions," an EU diplomat said.

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