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EU arms embargo on Syria: Scrap it or drop ‘non-lethal’ wording, says UK

EU arms embargo on Syria: Scrap it or drop ‘non-lethal’ wording, says UK
The UK has offered EU diplomats a choice between two options of amending the arms embargo on Syria in order to legally unleash a stream of lethal aid to the opposition. The draft proposal emerged as Britain and the US seek Russia’s political support.

The UK has been on a crusade to start arming the Syrian opposition and has lobbied hard in Brussels to amend the arms embargo placed on Damascus.   

In a leaked six-page long draft proposal circulated to EU diplomats over the past week, London is suggesting two options for amending current sanctions to give weapons to the Syrian National Coalition.

The paper says the situation in Syria is “deteriorating sharply” and the EU must apply more pressure on the Assad government to negotiate.

The first option pushes for full exemption of the main opposition bloc from the EU arms embargo, while the second proposal is to amend the language of the sanctions to remove the word “non-lethal” thus opening the gate for weapons to flow.

Such a move would, the paper says, strengthen the opposition and “head off any reliance by the moderate Syrian opposition on Islamist-backed armed groups.” 

The UK also argues that such an approach would place the EU in a better position to fight potential use of chemical weapons.

“Crucially, it will ensure we can respond flexibly to a major escalation in the conflict, such as chemical weapon attacks,” the paper added.

Another idea is to ease financial transactions by amending bank sanctions to rebel-held territory.

Fully exempt the National Coalition from the arms embargo

The EU is divided on the issue whether to adopt the British proposal which is also showing strong support from the French. The fierce debate in Brussels intensified after US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stated that Washington is rethinking its position on providing arms to the opposition, saying “arming the rebels — that’s an option.”

Discussions over lifting the embargo are expected to continue until the deadline of June 1. EU foreign ministers are scheduled to discuss the matter on May 27. Last month the EU agreed to allow purchases of oil from the opposition, lifting the sanctions originally imposed in May 2011. 

Remove "non-lethal" language to allow lethal equipment to be supplied to the Coalition

Spain, Austria and Sweden are worried that lifting the ban on arms sales will further destabilize the situation as it could arm al-Qaeda linked terrorist cells such as the al-Nusra Front.

Austria for instance says that it might be forced to recall its troops from the UN peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights, because it would challenge EU's impartiality.

Britain argues that only the Syrian National Coalition will receive the weapons and if the EU allows arms sales, it would need to monitor how any equipment was used.

“We have worked over many months to build effective relations with the opposition and have gradually extended our network of contacts. We already identify the recipients of any assistance very carefully,” UK said.

Germany, the diplomats say could be open for compromise on the issue, but is discussing how to alter financial restrictions to help the rebels and pressure Assad.

Russia has recently warned the EU not to lift its arms embargo. In Late April, Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov said if the embargo is removed, “the international obligations of the EU countries, which prohibit supplies of arms and ammunition to non-government actors, are not going anywhere.”

On Tuesday, Russia and the US reiterated their commitment to bringing all sides of the Syrian conflict for talks and announced an international conference to be called by the end of May which will serve as a follow-up to the Geneva Communiqué, the current peace road-map.

Although talking peace, the US at the same time is considering the possibility of arming the opposition. The future of a bill recently introduced to the US Congress depends on “the state of the evidence in respect to chemical weapons” US Secretary of State John Kerry said after meeting with Russia’s President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov.

Meanwhile, the Syrian National Coalition, the main benefactor from a potential lifting of the arms embargo, has welcomed the US-Russian negotiations.

“The National Coalition welcomes all international efforts which call for a political solution to achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people and their hope for a democratic state, so long as they begin with the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his regime.”

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron.(Reuters / Yves Herman)

British Prime Minister David Cameron has also welcomed the results of the negotiations and is scheduled to have discussions with President Putin in Russia on Friday.

But at the same time, Cameron once again accused the Syrian forces of using chemical weapons.

“There is a growing body of limited but persuasive information showing that the regime has used and continues to use chemical weapons including sarin and the room for doubt about this continues to diminish,
” Cameron told parliament.

This,  despite recent revelations by  a leading United Nations investigator, Carla del Ponte who stated that their probe found “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof” that it’s the rebels, not President Bashar Assad‘s forces, who have used chemical weapons.

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