Friday

22nd Mar 2019

EU countries free to ship arms to Syria

EU countries are legally free to ship arms to Syria from 1 June in an ugly compromise after 14 hours of talks in Brussels.

The deal is to see all other sanctions - including visa bans, asset freezes and a prohibition on buying oil from regime-linked firms - extended for one year.

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It comes with a political declaration that nobody will deliver weapons "at this stage."

It also comes with a promise to send arms "for the protection of civilians" only.

But it does not hide the fact that each member state will now create its own Syria arms rules because they could not agree a joint approach.

The talks saw a clash between British foreign minister William Hague and Austria's Michael Spindelegger.

France supported the UK, but took a back seat when its minister left early for another meeting in Paris.

Hague told press afterward: "We have brought an end to the EU arms embargo on the opposition."

He said: "This decision gives us the flexibility in future to respond to a worsening situation or the refusal of the [Syrian] regime to negotiate."

When asked how to ensure Islamic extremists do not get weapons, he added: "We would only take the step of sending arms in concert with other nations, in carefully controlled circumstances and in compliance with international law."

Spindelegger branded the result a failure.

He described Britain's negotiating tactics as "deplorable" and "annoying."

He said most ministers had wanted to keep the arms ban for now but to review it in August.

He also said the EU is a "peace organisation," but if countries start to take sides in civil wars it will "fundamentally" alter the nature of EU foreign policy.

For her part, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton tried to paper over the crack in the European facade.

She said: "There is a strong spirit of trying to find a European solution … Each individual [country] is trying to find a way to best support the Syrian people."

Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans gave a more frank assessment.

He noted: "We were risking not having any sanctions by the end of the day. So, I am counting my blessings. At least 90 percent of the sanctions are still there."

Outside the EU, Turkey and the US have voiced support for arming the rebels while Russia opposes the move.

"This does direct damage to the propects for convening the international conference," Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Itar-Tass news agency on Tuesday, referring to plans to hold peace talks in Geneva next month.

Meanwhile, analysts predict complications if France and the UK go ahead.

A contact from a French private intelligence firm, who asked to remain anonymous, told EUobserver if they ship fancy surface-to-air or anti-tank missiles they will have to send soldiers to teach rebels how to use them.

Robert Baer, a former CIA officer in the Middle East who now writes on security issues for Time magazine, said anyone who gets involved in Syria might get bogged down for years.

"When has it ever been wise to intervene in a civil war? This is the mother of all civil wars," he noted.

"The best thing is to let them bleed it out. That's what happened in Lebanon. The Lebanese got tired of killing each other with no reward for their pain. That's where the Syria conflict is heading," he added, referring to the 1975-1990 Lebanon war.

Opinion

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EU arms to Syria: what, how and if

Britain and France are since Saturday free to ship arms to Syrian rebels. But many analysts think the idea is "a bluff."

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