EU foreign ministers split on Syria arms embargo

Gilmore says Ireland does not want situation to become ‘further militarised’

Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevicius listens to Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague (R) at the start of an European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels today. Photograph:  Francois Lenoir/Reuters.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevicius listens to Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague (R) at the start of an European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels today. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters.


European foreign ministers have reconvened talks in Brussels tonight where divisions remain over a proposal to lift an EU arms embargo on the Syrian opposition.

The Irish Government reiterated its opposition to removing the arms embargo in Syria, with Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore underlining Ireland’s preference for a “peaceful, political settlement” to the crisis ahead of the talks.

Britain and Austria clashed over whether the embargo should be relaxed. Britain and France are pushing hard for its easing ahead of a peace conference sponsored by the United States and Russia expected next month.

Speaking this evening Austria’s foreign minister said the ministers failed to agree on easing the embargo. Austria leads the camp of five of the EU’s 27 governments firmly opposed to sending arms that they believe could deepen the two-year-old conflict that has cost 80,000 lives. All EU sanctions on Syria could collapse unless the EU can agree unanimously on what to do about the arms embargo before it expires on June 1st.

The deadlock could mean that all EU sanctions on Syria, including those on the Assad government, would expire on Saturday and individual member states would have to decide whether to keep sanctions in place, Austria’s Michael Spindelegger said.

However, other EU diplomats at the meeting in Brussels disputed the Austrian version of events, saying talks would resume later in the evening and there was still a chance of salvaging an agreement. “Nothing has failed. Germany and the Netherlands will push very hard to find an acceptable compromise for everybody,” a Dutch diplomat said.

Ahead of the meeting, Mr Gilmore said Ireland had been “consistently” of the view that the arms embargo should not be lifted.

“I think it is important that the situation in Syria does not become further militarised. We need to secure a peaceful outcome, a political solution. That’s going to be very difficult to achieve,” the Tánaise said.

Noting that the existence of different political views on the arms embargo issue, the Tánaiste said that it was important to achieve a “peaceful, political settlement.”

“Ireland is one of the countries that has been consistently reluctant to change the position on the arms embargo. The renewal of the sanctions will be up for discussion today, and we will try and achieve an agreement in those discussions,” he said.

The debate has gained urgency because of recent military gains by president Bashar al-Assad’s troops and because of allegations of chemical weapons use by the government side.

British foreign secretary William Hague, arriving for the talks, signalled Britain was prepared to see EU sanctions fall apart rather than bow on his demand to give more support to rebels.

“It is important to be doing the right thing for Syria. That is more important than whether the EU is able to stick together on every detail of this,” he told reporters. If the EU could not have a unified sanctions policy, “each country will have to ensure it has its own sanctions,” he said.

Opponents say taking a decision now to allow arms to be sent to the rebels could undermine the planned peace conference. Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans said he and German counterpart Guido Westerwelle were leading the search for a compromise.

Ministers from five EU states opposed to amending the embargo - Austria, Sweden, Finland, Romania and the Czech Republic - met separately and agreed they could accept an extension of the arms ban for a shorter period than the current three months before reviewing it again, an EU diplomat said.

However, extending the arms embargo unchanged is unlikely to be acceptable to Britain. Many other EU governments, while not keen to deepen the EU’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, are open to a compromise to maintain EU unity on Syria.

Britain and France say they have no immediate plan to arm the rebels but argue that easing the EU embargo would strengthen the hand of the West and the opposition in the negotiations.

Austria has warned that it could stop patrolling the UN ceasefire line on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria if the EU arms embargo was lifted. While the rebels are receiving arms from Arab states through Jordan and Turkey, Western powers are concerned that Islamist militants fighting Dr Assad could also use such weapons against them. The United States has also held back from supplying arms.

The EU’s diplomatic service produced several proposals aimed at finding middle ground between the two camps but none had won the required unanimous support by the time ministers took a break from talks for dinner on Monday evening. A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said discussions in the late evening would address the “next steps”, and a German diplomat said declaring talks over was premature. “There is still a chance for a political consensus,” the diplomat said. EU sanctions on Syria, including asset freezes and travel bans on Assad and senior Syrian officials as well as the arms embargo, expire on Saturday. Unless EU governments agree on what to do about the arms embargo before then, the entire EU sanctions package could collapse.

Additional reporting - Reuters