EU nations allow Syria arms embargo to lapse
Gilmore says there are no plans to arm rebels battling Assad regime in short term
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore (R) looks on as Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu addresses a joint news conference in Brussels yesterday. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters.
European Union foreign ministers last night allowed the arms embargo on Syria to lapse, opening the way for member nations to provide lethal aid to rebels fighting president Bashar Assad if they chose.
“While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate and worsen,” William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said after more than 12 hours of stormy talks in Brussels.
Speaking on RTE this morning, Mr Gilmore said that if arms were supplied in the longer term, strict conditions and safeguards against misuse would apply.
“I think there aren’t going to be arms delivered in the short term anyway and that’s committed to by the states concerned and if it arises at some stage, what was agreed yesterday was that it will be done under very strict conditions, very limited circumstances and only for the protection of civilians.”
Mr Gilmore said the European Union as an institution was not prepared to sanction the supply of arms to the rebel forces in Syria. He said Ireland was among the EU member states which feel that they “shouldn’t further militarise the conflict in Syria” and should concentrate on the political route and trying to get a ceasefire. He said the failure to extend the arms embargo was “not the outcome that I wanted, it’s not the outcome Ireland wanted”.
While the member states had reached unanimity on the renewal of economic and trade sanctions against the Assad regime, unanimous agreement was not reached on the arms embargo because France and Britain were in favour of relaxing the embargo, he said.
“The background here is that for the first time in a very long time there is a prospect of something happening in terms of talks and possibility of even a settlement,” he said, adding that a commitment by the US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to proceed with a talks initiative between the two sides in the conflict was a “positive” sign.
The decision not to extend the embargo - which will be widely read as a victory for Britain and France — was taken after a lengthy and divisive debate which saw deep divisions between member states on whether to supply arms to rebels in the war-torn country.
Britain and France had called for the arms embargo to be lifted in order to supply arms to certain rebel groups. But other countries staunchly opposed to the move, fearing that weapons could end up in the hand of extreme militants.
Austria was among the strongest opponents of lifting of the ban, with Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger at one point declaring that the talks had broken down. “I regret that after long talks it was not possible to find a compromise with the UK and France,” he said. “We have no consensus, which means the sanctions regime will not be continued.” However, agreement was reached to end the arms embargo, though other financial and economic sanctions will remain in place for a year.
The embargo, which was introduced in May 2011, had been due to expire on Friday, increasing pressure on EU ministers to reach agreement at yesterday’s summit. But differences have been building between member states over the last few months.
All 27 member states must support a change in policy. According to EU sources, one proposal to lift the embargo until August was rejected by France and Britain at yesterday’s meeting.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius left the meeting early to attend talks in Paris with Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov on a proposed peace summit in Geneva next month.
The French foreign minister said there were “stronger and better substantiated indications of the local use of chemical arms”, following a report in French newspaper ‘Le Monde’ that it had found evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
As discussions continued on the EU arms embargo, political attention was focusing on the proposed US and Russia-backed peace talks, which are expected to take place next month in Geneva.
While the Syrian government indicated its willingness to partake in the summit on Sunday, the various Syrian Opposition groups held a fourth day of discussions in Istanbul, as they remained divided about whether to join the Geneva talks.
More than 70,000 people have died during the 26 month Syrian conflict, while an estimated 1.5 million people have been displaced.