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EU Delays Syrian Arms Embargo Decision

  • RFE/RL

Demonstrators call for the international community to "Save the Children in Syria" and hold a minute of silence in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on March 14.

Demonstrators call for the international community to "Save the Children in Syria" and hold a minute of silence in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on March 14.

European Union leaders have put off a decision on whether to begin arming rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said the bloc's foreign ministers will assess an arms embargo on supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition during a meeting on March 22-23 in Dublin.

Van Rompuy made the announcement on March 15 at the end of a two-day summit in Brussels.

"The question of the arms embargo was raised by some members of the European Council," he said. "We agreed to task our foreign ministers to assess the situation as a matter of priority already at their informal meeting next week in Dublin and to develop common decisions."

Van Rompuy reaffirmed the EU's determination to help end what he called "the intolerable violence" in Syria.

France and Britain have urged other EU members to lift the embargo.

Earlier, French President Francois Hollande told reporters on March 14, at the start of the two-day summit, that Assad is not interested in a political solution to the two-year-old conflict and Europe cannot be passive as Syrians are slaughtered.

"We must also take responsibility," he said. "We cannot allow a people to be massacred by a regime that, for now, does not want any discussion or political transition, which is sufficiently clear now."

France and Britain have warned that while they want consensus on the issue, they could unilaterally decide to supply the opposition with weapons.

"Britain is a sovereign country. We have our own foreign, security, and defense policies. If we want to take individual action, we think that's in our national interest, of course we are free to do so," British Prime Minister David Cameron said after the summit.

"The way it works in the European Union, if you want to come to a common position, as we have on this issue, you can and then you can either keep renewing that common position or you can decide not to renew that common position. Obviously so far what we have done is amend that common position so that we have been able to give technical assistance."

Calls For Consensus

However, other EU members, including Germany, have resisted the idea, saying there are concerns that supplying arms to the rebels would lead to an escalation of violence.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU needed to "proceed very cautiously."

Upon arriving at the talks on March 15, Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen maintained that the EU should act on a consensus basis and that France and Britain should not arm the Syrian opposition without the consent of other EU member states.

"I do hope that we would have a strong and common foreign policy in the EU," he said. "And that is why this kind of issue [without consensus] wouldn't be that good. So we have tried to build up a common foreign and security policy, especially foreign policy, in the EU and I do hope that we could strengthen it by having a common policy on Syria also."

There are also concerns among EU members that weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist rebels who want Assad out but may also have an anti-Western agenda.

However, France says it is ready to supply weapons to the rebels even if the EU does not lift its embargo, which expires at the end of May.

The EU debate comes amid reports that Iran and Russia, the Syrian government’s main backers, have been continuing to arm Assad's regime.

Opposition leaders have repeatedly called on the West to provide arms to their forces. But these calls have largely gone unheeded.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already openly arming the rebels. But the United States, which has also called for the Assad regime to leave power, has limited itself to providing only "nonlethal assistance."

The EU summit was held on the second anniversary of the start of the Syrian revolt, which began with peaceful protests in the south of the country on March 15, 2011. The uprising soon developed into an armed conflict that -- according to UN figures -- has claimed more than 70,000 lives.

One million people have fled the conflict to neighboring countries, with some 4 million being internally displaced.

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and dpa