FOREIGN Secretary William Hague said the “right decision” had been reached after European Union foreign ministers agreed last night to end the embargo on supplying arms to opposition forces in Syria.
The decision was reached after an all-day meeting in Brussels that laid bare the EU’s hesitation on feeding arms in a foreign conflict only months after it won the Nobel Peace Prize.
All other sanctions against President Bashar Assad’s regime will be maintained.
Mr Hague, who had led efforts for the restrictions on weapons to be relaxed, said “no immediate decision” would be made on sending arms to rebels fighting Bashar Assad’s regime.
He insisted, however, that the UK government’s focus remained on ensuring successful peace talks at Geneva next month and a “political transition” in Syria.
The EU’s arms embargo was due to expire at the end of the month. No other EU member appeared to have immediate plans to send arms to the rebels.
Mr Hague said: “Tonight EU nations agreed to bring the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition to an end. This was the outcome that the United Kingdom wanted. It was a difficult decision for some countries, but it was necessary and right to reinforce international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria.
“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.”
The other elements of EU sanctions on the Assad regime are set to be retained, and the 27 nations agreed a common framework for member states who may decide to supply military equipment to the Syrian National Coalition in future.
Mr Hague said: “These agreed safeguards would ensure that any such equipment would only be supplied to the National Coalition, for the protection of civilians. This does not mean that we have made any decision as the United Kingdom to send arms to the National Coalition, but we now have the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate and if the Assad regime refuses to negotiate.
“Thousands of lives are at stake in Syria. Our focus remains on efforts to secure a successful outcome at the forthcoming Geneva conference, and a political transition that ends the conflict.”
The 27 EU nations agreed everything possible should be done to control any exports and make sure they do not fall into the hands of extremists or terrorists.
Austria had been holding back a joint decision, insisting no arms should be sent abroad.
“The EU should hold the line. We are a peace movement and not a war movement,” Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger said. In the end, Austria agreed with the text which “took note” of the commitment of member states to consider at a national level sending arms to the Syrian opposition.
Earlier on, Tory MP John Baron warned increasing the amount of weapons in Syria could be “a mistake of historic proportions”, triggering a wider conflict across the Middle East.
He told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “It beggars belief, the idea that . . . pouring more arms into this conflict could not or would not escalate the violence. Of course it’s going to do that.
“But it could do something more dangerous, that is it could escalate the conflict beyond Syria’s borders. That is why it could be a mistake of historic proportions.”
Anna Macdonald, head of arms control at Oxfam, warned that supplying weapons would mean “adding fuel to the fire” in Syria. Talking on the same radio programme, she added: “We are concerned that supplying arms to the opposition won’t level the playing field, in fact it will fuel a deadly arms race that will have even worse consequences for civilians.”
Western powers dismayed over opposition shake-up
A crisis in Syria’s opposition deepened yesterday when liberals were offered only token representation, undermining international efforts to lend the Islamist-dominated alliance greater support.
To the dismay of envoys of Western and Arab nations monitoring four days of opposition talks in Istanbul, the 60-member Syrian National Coalition thwarted a deal to admit a liberal bloc headed by campaigner Michel Kilo.
The failure to broaden the coalition, in which Qatar and a bloc largely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood has been playing the driving role, could undermine Saudi Arabian support for the revolt and raise the spectre of a rivalry among Gulf powers that could further weaken the opposition.
Its Western backers have pressured the coalition to resolve its divisions and expand to include more liberals to counter domination by Islamists. The disarray also threatens to strengthen Assad’s hand ahead of a international peace conference backed by the United States and Russia, planned to be held in Geneva in the coming weeks.
The move left the coalition controlled by a faction loyal to Qatari-backed Secretary-General Mustafa al-Sabbagh, and a bloc largely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh described the outcome as “democratic”.
KHALED YACOUB OWEIS
Conflict claims the lives of British doctor and Syrian TV reporter
A British doctor has died in Syria after a makeshift hospital in which he was working was shelled, a charity said last night.
Dr Isa Abdur Rahman, a 26-year-old graduate from Imperial College London, put his medical career on hold so that he could travel to Syria and help treat injured civilians.
Dr Rahman, from London, was in the north-western city of Idlib, where he was volunteering with the British charity Hand in Hand for Syria (HIHS), when a bomb hit the medical facility where he was working on Wednesday. He died shortly afterwards.
Faddy Sahloul, chairman of HIHS, described him as “one of the bravest and most dedicated people I have met”.
Mr Sahloul said: “Everyone who knew him is shocked and saddened to hear the tragic news of his death, but we can draw comfort from the fact that he died doing work that he loved. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and family at this difficult time.”
Two other civilians are thought to have died and two people were wounded in the attack on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, gunmen yesterday killed a TV correspondent for a Syrian state-owned channel and wounded two other station employees covering clashes near the border with Lebanon, Syria’s government said.
Syria’s information ministry said Yara Abbas, a prominent female war reporter for state-owned Al-Ikhbariyah TV, was attacked by rebels near the Dabaa military air base in the central province of Homs. The ministry said in a statement carried by state TV that the car carrying Abbas and her crew was ambushed in Dabaa.