BRUSSELS – The European Union said its member states within days will be able to send weapons to help Syria's outgunned rebels, seeking to pressure President Bashar Assad's regime ahead of planned peace talks mediated by the United States and Russia.
Though no EU country has any such plans now to send arms, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the decision "sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime." He spoke after an all-day meeting of foreign ministers Monday that laid bare EU hesitation on feeding arms in a foreign conflict only months after the 27-member bloc won the Nobel Peace Prize.
"It is extremely important not to do anything to rock the boat. Start delivering weapons now would rock the boat. No one is intending to do that," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.
But in a bid to force Syria to participate in good faith at the prospective "Geneva II" talks next month, the meeting in Brussels dangled the option of sending in weapons and military equipment as soon as Saturday, when the current sanctions regime ends.
The prospect of EU weapons for the rebels, while maintaining stiff economic sanctions against Assad's regime, also sends a message to Russia. Moscow has unabashedly sent weapons to Assad's regime — and EU arms deliveries could partially re-balance the civil war when it comes to firepower.
Several EU ministers said arming the opposition would create a more level playing field that could force Assad into a negotiated settlement.
Britain and France — the EU's biggest military powers — had been pushing the bloc to lift its embargo on delivery of weapons into Syria to help the embattled opposition. But Austria, which has sent peacekeepers to the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel, was vocally opposed — one of several EU countries that argued that the region is already awash in weapons.
EU countries will individually examine their export license applications one by one and will not proceed "at this stage" with deliveries of military equipment, the joint declaration said, though it did not specify when that might change.
EU ministers agreed to revisit the issue before Aug. 1, but countries, based on previous EU guidelines, can now decide for themselves whether they want to arm the rebels.
The EU nations also agreed everything possible should be done to control any exports and make sure they do not fall into the hands of extremists or terrorists — one of the thorniest issues for France and Britain in their calls to arm the rebels. Each country will require "adequate safeguards against misuse of authorizations (for export) granted," the EU text said.
Hague said Britain would only send in weapons "in company with other nations, in carefully controlled circumstances, and in compliance with international law."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left the talks earlier Monday to return to Paris to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who are leading the effort to bring the two warring Syrian sides to the negotiating table.
Assad's government has agreed in principle to participate in peace talks in Geneva, but the exact date, agenda and participants still remain unclear.
In Paris, officials traveling with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had no comment on the EU arms decision.
A State Department official also said the department was aware of Sen. John McCain, a proponent of arming Syrian rebels, crossing into Syrian territory on Monday. Further questions were referred to McCain's office, which confirmed the unannounced trip but gave no details.
McCain met with anti-government fighters in Syria. The fierce critic of Obama administration policy in Syria has stopped short of backing U.S. ground troops there.
France added urgency to the EU arms debate Monday, with Fabius pointing to increasing signs that chemical weapons were being used in the conflict.
The EU nations have been steadfast opponents of Assad in the war and have steadily increased restrictive measures against his regime, including visa restrictions and economic sanctions. In February, the bloc amended the arms embargo to allow for non-lethal equipment and medicine to protect Syrian civilians. All those measures had been set to expire on May 31, but nearly all of the sanctions, including restrictions on exports and imports, visas, and funding for some Syrian companies, were extended for a year.
Washington has been reluctant to provide rebels with more sophisticated weapons for fear they might end up in the hands of the radical Islamic factions, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that has been the most effective fighting force on the opposition side.