Brussels: European Union foreign ministers announced on Monday that they were keeping current sanctions against Syria in place for three months, rejecting attempts to alter an embargo on the country so that arms could be funnelled to rebels fighting President Bashar Al Assad.
However, in an apparent nod to the UK, which had argued that the rebels should be exempted from the embargo, the ministers adopted a non-specific amendment “so as to provide greater non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians.”
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that the meaning of that would be defined in meetings among the representatives of member countries to the union. She denied to reporters that the wording was a political fudge.
Still, British Foreign Secretary William Hague appeared to claim victory, saying many countries had not even wanted to discuss changing the embargo at a meeting in November.
“Most states were opposed to any amendment of the embargo and today we have amended it in a very important way, in a couple of very important ways,” Hague said.
He added that further amendments could be made three months from now, an indication that Britain might continue its push to arm the rebels.
“We will have to have that debate at the time, and I think that will depend on whether any political progress is now made in Syria and depend on the continued loss of life which continues on an appalling and unacceptable scale,” Hague said.
Several EU foreign ministers said, in strong terms, that they opposed sending any more arms into the ravaged country.
That view was supported on Monday by a new report by a UN-appointed panel that said Syria’s civil war is becoming increasingly sectarian and the behaviour of both sides is growing more and more radicalised. The report urged the international community to curb the supply of weapons and anti-government forces to part with foreign fighters.
A number of ministers said they were placing their hopes on the mediation efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria.
“There is no shortage of arms in Syria,” Luxembourgish Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said. “With more arms, there are more killed, more atrocities.”
The UN says nearly 70,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict since the revolt against Al Assad began in March 2011.
Despite the appalling violence, diplomatic efforts continue. Muath Al Khatib, the president of the opposition coalition, has said he would negotiate with representatives of Syria’s governing party — though not with Al Assad or members of his security services.
Brahimi, the international envoy, says that offer “challenges the Syrian government to fulfil its often-repeated assertion that it is ready for dialogue and a peaceful settlement.”
The report released in Geneva on Monday by the UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria made for alarming reading.
The commission, set up by the UN Human Rights Council, hasn’t been able to enter the country and said that “significantly limited” its ability to investigate all alleged abuses — particularly those committed by armed anti-government groups. The report was based on 445 interviews with victims and witnesses.