London, Asharq Al-Awsat—With Europe split on arming the Syrian rebels Britain has laid out a plan to lift the EU’s arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, Asharq Al-Awsat has learnt.
Britain has put forward a proposal to the EU calling for the arming of the Syrian opposition. This proposal emphasizes that London and Paris agree that providing the “moderate factions in the opposition with lethal weapons” will increase the pressure on the Assad regime to enter into negotiations with the Syrian National Coalition. The proposal adds that this will also strengthen the “moderate” opposition forces and enable them to confront the “radical forces.”
Britain called on the EU to amend the arms embargo in two ways:
First, given that the sanctions initially aimed to prevent Assad from killing his people, the British suggested that “the Syrian National Coalition be completely exempted from the EU arms embargo on Syria.” British officials also believe there is a good case for providing the Syrian National Coalition with arms as it has not taken part in “systematic and oppressive violence against civilians.”
Second, Britain called on the EU to provide sophisticated weapons to the opposition on the condition that these are used to protect civilians.
The British efforts come after Washington has played up the prospect of increasing support for rebels if Assad refused to negotiate an end to the violence.
On the other hand, Russia—Assad’s main supporter—suggests that Assad’s presence might stabilize any political transition; a suggestion rejected by the Syrian National Coalition which insists that Assad must not be a part of Syria’s future whatsoever.
EU foreign ministers will discuss on Monday in a meeting in Brussels whether or not they will renew the sanctions imposed on Syria, including the arms embargo. These sanctions will expire by 31 May 2013.
For its part, aid organisation Oxfam called on the EU to renew the arms embargo on Syria because “transferring more weapons to Syria can only exacerbate a hellish scenario for civilians.”
In a similar position, Austria called upon the EU to refrain from lifting the sanctions on Syria as doing otherwise “will only undermine US-Russian efforts to push for a political solution in Syria,” adding that “the Syrian National Coalition has no authority on the ground nor does it control the several armed opposition factions.”
Concerned over its troops, Austria beleives transferring more weapons to Syria will compromise the safety of its 380 troops who are part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) deployed in the Golan Heights since 1974.
Commenting on the growing divisions among the EU members, the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, said on Friday, “The worst would be for Europe to show its divisions to Syria. That would likely very much please the Assad regime.”
Away from Europe, disputes continue to beset the Syrian opposition.
Prior to an international conference in Geneva next month, members of Syria’s opposition met in Istanbul on Thursday to formulate a coherent position. However, two days after meetings, prominent coalition figures still had not reached a consensus regarding opposition unity.
The talks were also aimed at choosing a new leader for the Syrian National Coalition, since former leader Moaz al-Khatib resigned in March.
According to Reuters, Syrian businessman and secretary-general of the Syrian National Coalition Mustafa Al-Sabbagh offered to admit some members of liberal opposition figure Michel Kilo’s group to the coalition. Kilo rejected this deal, claiming that without significant representation his group will not join.
This follows demands by international opposition supporters for the Syrian opposition to unify its ranks.
While talks persisted in Istanbul and the opposition remained divided, the past week has seen an upsurge in conflict in the strategic town of Al-Qusayr near the Syrian border with Lebanon.
Assad forces, along with Lebanese Hezbollah, reportedly attacked the rebel-dominated Sunni town, validating fears that the Syrian conflict may spread across the border into neighboring Lebanon.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 22 people including 18 rebels had been killed in the latest fighting in Al-Qusayr.