EU ends arms embargo on Syria rebels


Foreign secretary William Hague: "This is the outcome that the United Kingdom wanted"

European Union foreign ministers have said they will not renew an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, due to expire on Saturday.

But there was no immediate decision to send arms to Syrian rebels and all other sanctions remained in force.

Even so, Russia said it would "directly harm" the prospects of an international peace conference on Syria.

Meanwhile, the BBC has heard evidence that 200 people were killed in a massacre in western Syria this month.

Opposition activists said they had documented the civilian deaths in al-Bayda and Baniyas after government troops and militias entered the towns.

The government described the operation as a strike against "terrorists".

'Clear signal'


While the lifting of the EU arms embargo is theoretically good news for the fractious Syrian opposition, it is clearly going to be some time before it has any effect on the battlefield.

Its authors, especially Britain, hope the decision itself will send a strong enough signal to President Bashar al-Assad that it is time to hand over power. That is extremely unlikely. For a government that has shown every sign of determination to fight to the end, it is hard facts on the ground that count.

Government forces have recently been making significant gains. To reverse that trend will take time and sacrifice by the rebels - and the kind of quality weapons they have so far been denied, especially armour-piercing and anti-aircraft projectiles.

The Americans in particular insist that much-needed shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles must not be given, lest they end up with extremists. But for the rebels at least the eventual possibility of carefully-controlled arms deliveries is there, in what looks like being a bloody, long-haul struggle.

The EU declaration on Syria came after 12 hours of talks in Brussels. Foreign ministers were unable to reach the unanimous decision required to extend the current arms embargo, and so agreed to renew the other sanctions - including an assets freeze on President Assad and his aides, and restrictions on trade in oil and financial transactions - without it.

The BBC's Jim Muir, in Beirut, says it is clear that the EU decision will not make much difference on the ground in the immediate future.

Member states can now decide their own policy on sending arms to Syria, but agreed not to "proceed at this stage with the delivery" of equipment.

The EU's Foreign Affairs Council is to review this position before 1 August, in light of fresh developments to end the conflict including the ongoing US-Russia peace initiative.

Britain and France had been pressing for the ability to send weapons to what they call moderate opponents of President Assad, saying it would push Damascus towards a political solution to the two-year conflict.

There has been increasing pressure on the international community to act since allegations emerged of chemical weapons being used in the conflict. Syria has denied using chemical weapons.

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Numerous pictures and videos that appear to show the aftermath of Baniyas are horrific - the women we interviewed described similar scenes”

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UK Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the outcome of the Brussels talks, saying 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".

But other countries had opposed opening the way for weapons to be sent, saying it would only worsen the violence that has already cost at least 80,000 lives.

Austria had been a key opponent of arms being sent.

"The EU should hold the line. We are a peace movement and not a war movement," Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the EU move "a manifestation of double standards". Russia and the US are leading efforts to organise a peace conference on Syria next month.

'Too little'

The Syrian opposition has not said whether to attend the conference, and was locked in talks in Istanbul, Turkey, as an unofficial deadline to decide on its attendance passed.

EU arms embargo on Syria

  • Ban on export/import of arms and equipment for internal repression expires 1 June 2013
  • Non-lethal military equipment and technical assistance allowed under certain conditions since Feb 2013
  • All Syrian cargo planes banned from EU airports
  • EU states obliged to inspect Syria-bound ships or planes suspected of carrying arms
  • Assets freeze on 54 groups and 179 people responsible for or involved in repression
  • Export ban on technical monitoring equipment

A spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Louay Safi, was quoted by news agency AFP as saying that the EU move was "a positive step", but that the coalition was "afraid it could be too little, too late".

George Jabboure Netto, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, another opposition group, said the dropping of the arms embargo was a "step in the right direction".

He told the BBC that the SNC was willing to negotiate an end to the conflict, but only on the condition that there was no place for President Assad in the new Syria.

"We think coupling the arming of [the] Free Syrian Army with diplomatic efforts is a must for any hopes for the diplomatic efforts to succeed."

The EU embargo, first imposed in May 2011, applies to the rebels as much as the Syrian government.

But in February this year, foreign ministers agreed to enable any EU member state to provide non-lethal military equipment "for the protection of civilians" or for the opposition forces, "which the Union accepts as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people".

UK aid agency Oxfam has warned of "devastating consequences" if the embargo ends and more arms are sent into Syria.

In other developments:

  • French officials are testing samples brought back from Syria by two journalists for Le Monde newspaper, who say they witnessed a chemical weapons attack by government forces against the rebels on the outskirts of Damascus last month
  • US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Paris, with Mr Kerry saying they were both "deeply committed" to a transitional government in Syria chosen by mutual consent
  • One of the strongest advocates of US military aid for the Syrian opposition, Senator John McCain, has made a surprise visit to Syria for discussions with rebel leaders
  • Fighting in Syria continues around the strategic town of Qusair, a few miles from the Lebanese border, with a prominent Syrian female TV journalist, Yara Abbas, killed just outside the town
  • Three Lebanese have been killed near the north-eastern town of Arsal by gunmen who then fled across the border into Syria, officials said.

More on This Story

Syria conflict


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  • rate this

    Comment number 736.

    Ian Pannell's should be your top story BBC, to really put the suffering of Syrians before the idiotic arguing about who does this, that, or what in the future. Assad's people are committing the most deplorable of crimes, massacres, on a weekly basis...& no one gives a damn about that. No one has a conscience or heart anymore for human beings. All we go on about is we, we, we, me, me, me. Shameful!

  • Comment number 735.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 734.

    Well done Mr Hague. A step forward to chasing out Assad the murderer.

    Meanwhile, Mrs Assad, girl from South London, sits in Russia, guarding Assad fortune. Money stolen from Syrian people over decades, & now paying for Russian weapons to kill Syrians?

    Back in Syria, Mr Assad conducts the massacre. When everyone is dead he will steal what's left

    Power,greed & money is what it's all about?

  • rate this

    Comment number 733.

    The Tories once again proving their the party of capitalism at any cost, even human lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 732.

    Brilliant news. Good on WH

    Keep dictators out...

  • rate this

    Comment number 731.

    You cannot pick and choose your bad guys, just as you cannot call men who eat human hearts, plant car bombs in civillian areas (with equipment bought by us) and execute unarmed soldiers "freedom fighters". The BBC has already exposed itself as a failing network, keep going on with biased reporting and you may find yourselves with an uprising of fee payers who have had enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 730.

    Well its as if we don't have a Third of the population on the bread line or a housing crisis do we.

    So lets spend some of the plenty of cash we have on War...and we can vote for another government to carry on in the same way............

    Syria no democracy with violence
    UK no democracy without violence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 729.

    The UK government are assuming that British the armed forces who will be involved in helping to deliver these arms and the training to go with them are going to say yes. They drew up plans to invade Rhodesia when it declared independence in the 65, this plan was abandoned as they belived the army would mutiny if forced to fight white british settlers. Now they are asking them to arm the enemy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 728.

    726 First, the US hasn't been in a recession in around 3 or 4 years.It's been in a sluggish recovery.Second, US shooting up Russian missile launchers and radar isn't really US involvement, it's more like target practice.The US will have good cover, Israel will play the heavy.It's usually accused of it anyway so why not since its survival is at stake.Isreal could blow Assad away if it wants to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 727.

    Now that Putin has his own heliport on top of the Kremlin, he'll be able to deliver these S-300's himself...but would want to send a few in before as to protect him from his having a one way journey into the arms of the rebels.

    PS. It's good to have a good naughty thought, now & again!

    PPS, Please guys, as you write your ponderings, think too of the war victims, the Syrian civilians!

  • rate this

    Comment number 726.

    I think your kidding yourself if you believe the US want to get involved against Russia in Syria. With the west still in recession conflict between the US and Russia would cause economic oblivion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 725.

    Seeing as this page is about to be taken down you can continue here:

  • rate this

    Comment number 724.

    My tip to Cameron, Brown, Blair, Major, Thatcher, Callaghan, Wilson, etc (were they alive) would be this:

    History would remember far more fondly, those Prime Ministers who managed to not put a single British serviceman or servicewoman into a foreign grave.

    You don't need a long war to be remembered. A long peace works too.

    (But we're the biggest idiots as we keep voting for them)

  • rate this

    Comment number 723.

    There is no right or wrong in all this. Russia are busy supplying arms to the Assad regime as are Iran (also supplying fighters) but somehow Russia claim the moral high ground by criticising the EU's embargo lifting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 722.

    #714 I made TNT once. Ironically the ingredients are far more dangerous than the end product. I did 4 months in Bosnia in '97 as a TA soldier. That killed any thoughts of a permanent military career. I'm sure someone will be making a profit somewhere but I'm more concerned with whats being sold than for how much. 'Weapons' covers everything from a pen knife to a nuke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 721.

    I wonder why the BBC has hidden this page?

  • rate this

    Comment number 720.

    Practically forcing Israel to enter the battle to defend itself from Russian weapons was about as stupid and counterproductive a move as Russia could make.This is a red line Israel clearly defined and adds nothing to Assad's battle against the rebels.This Russian junk is no match for US technology.Will the US use it to try out its new X47B stealth superdrone in actual combat?A perfect opportunity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 719.

    Sheer hypocrisy - UK talks about dealing with terrorists on our own streets while trying to arm terrorists in another country. And, yes, while the Assad "regime" is in power these rebels are terrorists, spreading terror and causing millions to uproot to avoid the conflict.
    BBC should again hang its head in shame for being a propaganda mouthpiece for America's global power-grab.

  • rate this

    Comment number 718.

    It is impossible to find yourself in agreement with 100% of the policies of a government, or even of a the manifesto of a party.

    However, the issue of foreign intervention is one that I find no common ground with any of them.

    I do NOT want my country to get involved in any more foreign disputes and that includes flogging them the means to kill & maim each other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 717.

    Are also going to arm the Muslim rebels in Sweden ?


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