The discussions were heated and lasted well into the night. For hours, European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday fought over whether to lift a ban on supplying weapons to Syria's beleaguered rebels. The negotiations were broken off at several points, and press conferences were delayed.
In the end, the foreign ministers were unable to agree on an extension of the EU arms embargo and thereby resolve disputes over whether to arm the rebels. As a result, the embargo will automatically expire this Friday at midnight.
Without an embargo, EU member states will be able to decide for themselves whether they wish to unilaterally supply weapons to opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said late Monday following the negotiations in Brussels. Nevertheless, Westerwelle added that the EU states had committed to follow strict criteria in making weapons transfers. He referred to a previous agreement stipulating that member states should block exports of weapons and other military equipment if these threatened to prolong armed conflict. Extending or amending the embargo would have only been possible with the unanimous support of the members states.
Despite failing to agree on the embargo, the ministers signed a deal that will keep all other sanctions in place for another year. These include curbs on trade as well as freezing the assets of and imposing travel bans on Assad and senior Syrian officials. According to Westerwelle, the states had committed themselves to make new and separate decisions on each of the sanctions.
A Fatal Signal from Brussels
The EU divisions send a fatal signal on the matter, though. They show that Europe does not speak with a single voice when it comes to the most important foreign policy and security issues. Indeed, the discord in Brussels makes European appeals to the Syrian opposition to unite behind a common and universally accepted leadership seem ridiculous.
In recent weeks, the UK and France, the EU's biggest military powers, led the push to lift the sanctions. Backers of arming the rebels want to increase pressure on Assad in the run-up to the Syria peace conference scheduled for June in Geneva, which aims to end the two-year conflict that has claimed over 70,000 lives.
Following the meeting, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters that it was "important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so." His support of lifting the sanctions, he added, should therefore be seen as part of the diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict.
The Czech Republic, Finland and, in particular, Austria had taken strong positions against allowing the embargo to expire. One reason that Austria opposes arming the rebels is that it currently has 380 soldiers stationed on the Golan Heights to monitor the UN ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Last month, several UN soldiers from the Philippines were abducted and held for days. Now Vienna is threatening to withdraw its UN troops from the region.
Those who back arming the rebels hope that doing so will strengthen moderate forces among the rebel groups. For months, radical Islamist groups, such as the al-Qaida-aligned Al-Nusra Front, have been receiving arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. At a meeting of the "Friends of Syria" held last week in Amman, Jordan, Gen. Salem Idriss, the head of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), delivered an impassioned and emotional speech to foreign ministers from the United States, Turkey, Germany and eight other European and Arab countries, pleading with them to quickly arm the rebels, lest their chances of defeating Assad's regime grow even grimmer.
However, it is unlikely that the near future will bring any change in the military imbalance between the rebels and Syrian government troops, who have made advances in recent weeks. So far, the UK and France have been the only European states to publicize their willingness to supply the rebels with military support. Yet it remains completely unclear exactly what form this would take. Among other things, London has floated the idea of sending military advisers to rebel-controlled areas of Syria. Already months ago, Paris called for arming the rebels, but President François Hollande's government has refrained from specifying what exactly it might send.
"While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria," British Foreign Secretary Hague said after the summit ended, "it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate."
Meanwhile, although President Barack Obama continues to oppose arming the rebels, US Senator John McCain, a leading Republican proponent of doing just that, made a surprise visit to Syria on Monday, crossing into the country from Turkey to speak with leaders of the FSA. They asked him to increase US support, including heavy weapons, a no-fly zone and airstrikes on Syrian government and Hezbollah forces, according to the Daily Beast.
Russia, which is co-sponsoring the peace talks in Geneva with the United States, continues to stand by Syria, its closest ally in the Arab world. On Tuesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryablov reportedly criticized the EU's failure to extend the arms embargo, saying that it inflicts "direct damage" on the conference's chances at hammering out a peaceful solution to the conflict.