On the second anniversary of the uprising that evolved into Syria’s brutal civil war, leaders at an EU summit yesterday failed to agree on whether to arm rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The item was not on the agenda — the main topic was EU-Russian relations — but French officials had indicated French President Francois Hollande would raise it at the meeting, which took place in Brussels. Britain has also pressed for the ability to arm the rebels, but other countries are adamantly opposed to putting more munitions into Syria.
The 27 EU government leaders handed over the issue to their finance ministers, asking them to try to forge a common position when they hold an informal meeting in Dublin at the end of next week.
“We are all deeply concerned about the desperate situation in Syria,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after the summit broke up. “Europe can only play a strong and effective role if it acts as one.”
The EU has in place an embargo prohibiting any arms from being sent to Syria, whether to the rebels or to the al-Assad regime. That embargo is scheduled to remain in effect until May, when it will either be renewed or allowed to expire.
France and Britain have argued they should be able supply arms to the rebels, saying the al-Assad regime is receiving arms from Russia and Iran. With more weaponry, those countries argue, the rebels could defend themselves and the civilian population, and members of the al-Assad regime would see more clearly the need to negotiate a political settlement.
However, other EU countries say Syria is already awash in weaponry and does not need any more. They argue that arming the rebels could spark an arms race in the country, with Russia and Iran continuing their support for the regime.
In Vienna, Austrian Defense Minister Gerhard Klug said he was opposed to EU weapons for Syrian rebels, saying they could end up in the wrong hands. Austrian troops form part of the 1,000-strong UN peacekeeping force on the Golan, and the country’s concern about the safety of its soldiers has risen since Syrian rebels temporarily detained 21 Filipinos last week.
Klug told Austrian state broadcaster ORF yesterday that EU arms deliveries “would mean more weapons in this crisis region,” adding there was no guarantee about whom they would end up with.
In Damascus, Syrian authorities yesterday beefed up security measures as rebels urged supporters to mark the second anniversary of the country’s uprising by stepping up attacks against the regime.
The revolt against al-Assad’s authoritarian rule began in March 2011 with protests in the southern city of Daraa, after troops arrested teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall. It has since morphed into a civil war with an estimated 70,000 people killed, according to the UN.