EU Amends Syria Sanctions to Boost Protection of Civiliansإقرأ هذا الخبر بالعربية
The European Union on Monday renewed sanctions against Syria while amending them to enable nations to provide more "non-lethal" and technical support to help protect civilians.
A statement agreed by EU foreign ministers said the bloc's sanctions were renewed for three more months until end-May, while "amending them so as to provide greater non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians."
The ministers' talks on Syria largely focused on a request by Britain, backed by Italy and a handful of EU allies, to lift an EU arms embargo barring the supply of weapons to the rebel coalition battling President Bashar Assad.
Though the arms embargo was maintained, the agreement to boost "non-lethal" support and "technical assistance" went some way to meeting Britain's calls for more support for the opposition Syrian National Coalition.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague had called for changes to the existing arms ban "so that we can provide a broader range of support to the National Coalition."
"We give them strong political and diplomatic support. We also give them assistance in terms of equipment at the moment to help them try to save people's lives," he added. "I think there is a broader range of equipment that we could give to them."
The EU's wide-ranging sanctions against Syria, including the arms ban but also targeting scores of Assad cronies and regime-friendly firms, as well as oil, trade and finance, expire at the end of the month and a deal to renew the package required unanimity.
"Delivering arms might bring about a new military balance on the ground," said an internal paper on the matter drafted for the member states by Ashton's service.
"But it could also fuel further militarization of the conflict, increase risks of dissemination among extremist groups and of arms proliferation in a post-Assad Syria," said the paper, which was obtained by Agence France Presse.
Options that were up for discussion on the table were restricting the embargo to the Syrian government, exempting members of the opposition Syrian National Coalition from the arms ban, or amending the embargo to allow some weapons to be delivered with a view to increasing the protection of civilian populations.
Luxembourg's minister Jean Asselborn, a strong voice on the European diplomatic scene, warned on arrival to the meeting that caution was key.
"There is no lack of weapons in Syria, rather the contrary. There are a lot of things lacking in Syria, but not arms," he said. "More arms will mean more deaths."
EU diplomats are concerned too over the timing of a lift of the arms embargo.
"There is a real question here," said a senior EU diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. "But is this the right moment given the current efforts to push a political settlement?"
U.N. peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was supposed to attend Monday's talks with the EU ministers but had to pull out as efforts mount to make good an offer from opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib to negotiate with some regime figures.
"In today's political context, would this be an appropriate measure?" added the diplomat.
Just over a week ago, French President Francois Hollande ruled out lifting the arms embargo for the time being, saying this could only happen "if we're sure there are no further possibilities of political dialogue."
And in Mali, France is facing a reality check "with its troops fighting rebels armed with western weapons from Libya," said an EU official.
U.S. President Barack Obama last year refused to arm Syria's rebels on the same grounds.