Europe Conflicted on Whether to Arm Syrian Insurgents

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BRUSSELS -- A push by France and Britain to end a weapons embargo on Syria to allow the arming of rebels there ran into heavy resistance on Friday from other European countries, which worry that such a step will only escalate the Syrian conflict and stoke instability elsewhere in the Middle East.

At a European Union summit meeting here in Brussels, a number of European leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and the bloc's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, expressed doubt about the wisdom of lifting the arms embargo. The division highlighted the difficulties Europe has in speaking with a single voice on international issues, particularly those that risk entangling Europe in foreign military conflicts.

France and Britain, former imperial powers with a long tradition of intervening overseas, take a far more activist approach to foreign affairs than other European nations, particularly Germany and Austria, which have sought for decades to shed any hints of militarism left over from World War II.

"We have a number of reservations regarding arms exports even to the opposition because one has to ask oneself whether that won't just fan the flames of conflict," Ms. Merkel told a news conference at the end of the two-day summit. She said European foreign ministers would discuss the matter further, starting next week at a meeting in Ireland, in an effort to find a common position.

President François Hollande of France, who led a Franco-British push in Brussels to allow arms deliveries to opponents of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, stressed that Paris would keep up the pressure for a change of policy by the 27-nation European Union, telling reporters that "many around the table were convinced but not all." Diplomats, however, said there was scant support for a lifting of the embargo outside London and Paris.

France, which in January sent troops to Mali, a former French colony, to push back an offensive by Islamist rebels, has grown increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of European decision-making on foreign affairs. The European Union expressed support for France's Mali intervention but, months later, has been struggling to put together a training mission it promised for the Malian armed forces.

Mr. Hollande said he drew hope of a shift in the union's policy on Syria from the fact that the bloc's position had already "evolved" from an initial stand of not getting involved beyond providing humanitarian assistance. In February, European Union foreign ministers agreed to extend an arms embargo for a further three months but agreed to allow nonlethal but quasi-military aid like flak jackets and armored vehicles, something that Germany and others had previously opposed.

Ms. Merkel on Friday left open the possibility of a further shift, saying that she had "not as yet come to a definitive position" on the question of arms supplies. She added that "nonlethal support was not something we wanted to give but there was a change."

But, referring to a change of policy by Britain and France in favor of arms supplies to Syria, she added: "Just the fact that two have changed their position is not sufficient for 25 others to follow suit completely. But it is well worth our while to try and bring about a unified European position."

She said that Ms. Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy, had presented a number of reasons during the summit meeting for not supplying lethal weapons, including the risk of instability in Lebanon, the wider Middle East and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. "All this has to be weighed very carefully in the balance," Ms. Merkel said.

Ms. Ashton, though herself British, has distanced herself from Britain's increasingly loud calls for military support for the Syrian opposition and stressed the need for a political solution. The British prime minister, David Cameron, who has for months demanded a more robust European policy in support of rebels, told members of Parliament in London earlier this week that if other European countries continued to block arms to Syria, Britain would be ready to act unilaterally.

Concerns among many European leaders that supporting the Syrian opposition militarily could backfire deepened early this month when rebels seized a convoy of unarmed United Nations peacekeepers in part of the disputed Golan Heights region between Syria and Israel. The rebels later released them but the incident heightened fears about the role of Islamist radicals in the faction-ridden opposition.

Austria, anxious about the safety of its own peacekeepers on the Golan Heights, said Friday that it opposed lifting a European Union ban on sending arms to Syria. "One can never rule out whose hands more weapons will end up in, and that's why I am against this suggestion," the Austrian defense minister, Gerald Klug, told national broadcaster ORF, according to a report by Reuters news agency.

Mr. Hollande brushed aside worries that lifting the arms embargo risked inflaming the Syrian conflict and putting arms in the hands of Syrian groups opposed to the West. Noting that repeated efforts at a negotiated settlement had got nowhere and that "the number of victims only gets heavier day by day," he said: "The biggest risk is inaction. We reduce the risk by taking action."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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