As Syria's civil war enters 3rd year, European Union arms embargo still stands


Rebel fighters offer prayers near their position as they prepare to fight against pro-Syrian regime forces on the Jabal al-Turkman mountains in Syria's northern Latakia province, on February 5, 2013.


Aamir Qureshi

As Syria enters its third year of civil war, European countries disagree over whether sending weapons to the rebels would help bring the long-running conflict to an end.

On the second anniversary of the day that anti-government protests began, European Union foreign ministers met in Brussels to discuss proposals to lift their arms embargo on Syria, which bans supplying weapons to either side.

France and the UK led the push to drop the embargo, but few other countries were persuaded. 

"Nobody really is interested [in lifting the embargo]," one diplomat told Reuters. "There is no prospect of change any time soon."

British Prime Minister David Cameron, however, said that there was a "good understanding that what is happening now isn't working," reported the BBC

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The bloc will attempt to reach "a common position" on the issue by the close of its next talks on March 22-23, according to EU President Herman Van Rompuy, who said he had asked ministers to assess the situation "as a matter of priority."

The French and British governments have indicated that they might consider arming rebels even without the EU's backing.

They argue that President Bashar al-Assad's allies, namely Russia and Iran, continue to supply his forces with weapons and other military support – leaving the rebels at a severe disadvantage. Yet critics counter that an influx of weapons risks worsening the violence or falling into the hands of extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda, and prefer to stick to a non-military approach.

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Attempts to exercise diplomatic pressure aren't working, Cameron told a press conference today. 

"Of course I want a political solution. But this is not an either-or situation. I think in fact we are more likely to see political process if people can see that the Syrian opposition, which we have now recognised, that we are working with, is a credible and strengthening and growing force," the Guardian quoted him as saying. 

Radical groups among the rebels already have weapons, Cameron said, arguing that funnelling arms to the internationally recognized opposition would help ensure that they, rather than extremist factions, were able to take control.

The EU embargo is due to expire on June 1. A vote on whether to extend it is scheduled for May; according to the BBC, the UK has already threatened to veto.

The United Nations says that two years of civil war have caused 1.1 million Syrians to flee abroad and left more than 4 million in need of aid within the country, Bloomberg reported. As many as 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict, at a rate of up to 5,000 per month. 

"There is almost no place deemed to be safe," the UN's regional humanitarian coordinator, Radhouane Nouicer, said in a statement.

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