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EU split over Britain, France push to arm Syria rebels

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Britain and France on Friday failed to rally broad European Union support to arm Syria's rebels despite escalating concern over the use of chemical weapons in the conflict that has entered its third year.

"There was a big variety of views," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague at the close of a first day of talks in a two-day meeting between EU foreign ministers. "The discussion was not conclusive."

Debate over whether to lift an existing EU arms embargo in order to supply arms, including ground-to-air missiles and other heavy weaponry, to insurgents fighting President Bashar al-Assad, would continue "for another couple of months", Hague said.

An agreement is needed by May 31 to renew a far-reaching package of EU sanctions against the Assad regime, including the near two-year-old embargo. If not agreed unanimously by the EU-27 it will expire. The ministers are scheduled to meet a couple of times at least before then.

France and Britain, who irritated partners a week ago by unexpectedly thrusting the issue into an EU summit, argue that scrapping the embargo can tilt the balance on the ground and help prompt a political settlement of the conflict.

"If we lift the embargo, it is to unlock the political situation, to help the resistance fighters stop receiving bombs from Bashar al-Assad's planes," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

Fabius also said he urged counterparts to think about the danger posed by the possible use of chemical arms by the Damascus regime. "I insisted heavily on this," he said as Hague too branded his "concerns" over chemical weaponry.

But as the ministers gathered inside Dublin's historic castle, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Berlin remained "very reluctant."

"On one side you have to help and support people -- on the other side prevent that aggressive weapons come into the wrong hands," he said, expressing a huge concern from many of the participants who fear seeing radical jihadists seize arms supplied by Europe only to later turn them against the West.

"We need guarantees on the traceability (of weapons)," said Belgium's Foreign Minister Didier Reynders of worries about weapons falling into the wrong hands.

-- 'EU wasn't created to deliver arms' --

Austria's Michael Spindelegger, whose country states it is on the same line as the Czech Republic, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden, as well as UN chief Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile reiterated his staunch opposition to a lifting of the embargo.

"The EU wasn't created to deliver arms. There can be no change to this principle," he said.

Vienna would likely remove its almost 400 soldiers making up a third of the UN peace force in the disputed Golan Heights near Syria and Israel should the EU lift the arms ban, Spindelegger said.

"We don't need more weapons in Syria," he said. "We need a political solution."

With more than 70,000 dead and one out of five Syrians in need of aid, Hague called for a common EU stand but conceded Paris and London might decide to go it alone.

"Our aim here is to see if we can achieve agreement within the EU, if not we can obviously act on our own," he said.

After sharp divisions over the Balkans in the 1990s and Iraq in 2003, Britain and France first went it alone in Libya in 2011 but finally won the support of more than a dozen nations for a NATO-led no-fly zone that was backed by the UN.

"France and Britain traditionally act as a motor. When they commit and engage others will follow," said Vivien Pertusot of the IFRI think-tank.

Hague seemed to hold out some hope of compromise however by saying that the embargo could either be lifted entirely or "seriously" amended.

Just three weeks ago, the two European defence giants pressed their EU partners to ease the Syria arms embargo to allow the supply of "non-lethal" equipment as well as "technical assistance" -- which includes training -- to the rebels.

Britain immediately pledged armoured vehicles and protective clothing.

Diplomatic sources said the existing arms embargo possibly could be amended again to allow the supply this time of "lethal" but "defensive" equipment.

But the West remains dubious over the fragmented Syrian opposition, with the US military's top officer General Martin Dempsey this week saying Washington had only an "opaque" view of the rebels.

Top US diplomat John Kerry said the United States would not oppose moves by some European countries to arm Syrian rebels but Washington has fears the weapons could end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked militants.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130322/eu-split-over-britain-france-push-arm-syria-rebels