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19th Jan 2020

Austria: EU talks on Syria have failed

Austria raised the stakes in EU talks on Syria late on Monday (27 May), saying the UK and France have destroyed a potential compromise on arms shipments to rebels.

Foreign ministers broke off negotiations for dinner at 8.30pm local time in Brussels and planned to restart at 10pm in what one diplomat predicted will be "a long night."

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But Austria's Michael Spindelegger used the break to tell press the talks have failed.

He said the best potential compromise was to renew an EU arms embargo on Syria for another year, while giving EU countries the option to suspend it in August if they all agree there is "a real tremendous change in the situation."

He said the UK and France instead asked for a free hand to ship weapons when they deem fit, while making a political promise not to do it just yet.

"It did not happen," he said on efforts to get all 27 EU states to agree.

"I can't imagine there will be a change after so many hours of talks," he added.

With the old EU sanctions to legally expire on 1 June, Spindelegger noted that EU nations will now have to create 27 separate sets of restrictions on arms transfers or visa bans and asset freezes on Syrian VIPs.

"Afterwards, everybody is entitled to deliver weapons to the [Syrian] regime or to the opposition. What we can do from the Austrian side is … to create sanctions at national level. So we will not be open to any officials of [Syrian leader] Assad coming to Austria with a visa," he noted.

Other ministers were less pessimistic, however.

Breaking for the dinner, Germany's Guido Westerwelle told media the talks have been "difficult" but "constructive."

British foreign minister William Hague said little on his way out, but promised to return.

An EU diplomat noted that "serious work will continue" and that the ministers would not be coming back at 10pm if the talks had really collapsed.

Britain and France believe the arms move is needed to force the Syrian government to negotiate and to help protect civilians from its jets and tanks.

But Austria is against it on two grounds.

It is worried about reprisals against Austrian peacekeepers in a UN contingent on the Israeli-Syrian border.

It also says the EU is a "peace organisation" which should not make a "fundamental" change in its foreign policy by intervening on one side in a civil war.

Other arms sceptics, such as the Czech republic, worry that modern surface-to-air or anti-tank missiles shipped to "moderate" rebels, such as the Free Syrian Army, will end up in the hands of Islamist radicals.

For their part, Turkey and the US back the Anglo-French idea.

But some US experts think they could be in for a nasty surprise.

Robert Baer, a former CIA officer in the Middle East who now writes on security issues for Time magazine, told EUobserver: "Once those arms cross the border, there's no control over them."

He said that as in the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s, the fiercest fighters in Syria are religious extremists.

"What you're doing is creating a Salafi nation if they win in Syria … If they take down Assad, they won't thank the West. Their only objective will be to export jihad to Lebanon and Jordan," he said, referring to the extremist Salafi movement in Sunni Islam and the Islamic concept of holy war.

"They're going to fire that stuff [British and French weapons] at Israel because they want to meet their maker," he added.

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