Foreign ministers at odds over whether to lift Syrian arms embargo

Majority of EU members, including Ireland, oppose sending weapons to rebels

Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore with EU policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU foreign ministers in Dublin Castle yesterday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore with EU policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU foreign ministers in Dublin Castle yesterday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


Disagreements over whether the EU should lift its arms embargo to empower Syrian opposition forces dominated a meeting of European foreign ministers in Dublin yesterday, with a majority of member states, including Ireland, opposed to further militarising the conflict.

France and Britain have pushed for lifting or amending the ban on sending weapons to Syrian rebels when EU sanctions on Syria come up for renewal on June 1st. “To support a diplomatic and political settlement, which is essential for peaceful transition, it will be necessary for us to increase the support that we give to the National Coalition on the ground,” British foreign secretary William Hague said ahead of the meeting in comments mirrored by his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius.

Damascus explosion
The two-day informal talks opened in Dublin Castle a day after an explosion in a Damascus mosque killed at least 49 people, including a senior Sunni cleric loyal to the Assad regime.

After the meeting broke up yesterday evening, Mr Hague reiterated his view that there was a “very strong case” for lifting or amending the embargo, but he acknowledged a “big variety of opinions” among member states. “We have had a very good discussion . . . but this is not a decision-making meeting, there will be further meetings over the next two months and what happens will depend heavily on events during that time.”

Germany, Ireland, Austria, Sweden and other states fear that funnelling more weapons to Syria’s increasingly fragmented opposition forces risks widening a conflict that has already claimed more than 70,000 lives since early 2011.

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle acknowledged that Britain and France had “good reasons” for wanting to boost opposition forces battling the Assad regime but he said such a move was likely to have negative repercussions.

“We are still reluctant on lifting the arms embargo,” Mr Westerwelle said, adding: “We have to help and to support the [Syrian] people . . . but . . . we have to avoid a conflagration and we have to prevent that aggressive offensive weapons come into the wrong hands.”

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore, who co-hosted yesterday’s meeting with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said Ireland held a similar view. “Our national position is that if you put more arms into the situation you increase the militarisation of it and you move away from trying to find a political solution,” he said.

“I think that the further militarisation of the environment in Syria would certainly not be helpful. The more guns that go into Syria . . . the more casualties there will be.”

Medical assistance
Mr Gilmore said European governments should focus instead on providing humanitarian aid, particularly medical assistance, to opposition-held parts of Syria.

The British and French foreign ministers had written to Baroness Ashton setting out their case ahead of the Dublin meeting, saying they were “increasingly concerned about the regime’s willingness to use chemical weapons”. Speaking after the talks, Mr Fabius claimed there were “indications” that chemical weapons “may have been used” by the Assad regime.

Mr Hague, however, said there must be a “broad” UN investigation into what he called the “possible” use of chemical weapons. “We have to establish the truth of that . . . We often hear about the alleged use of chemical weapons but we don’t have conclusive evidence so it is important that an investigation takes place,” he added.