EU urges political solution in Syria amid fears of spillover

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The European Union insisted Saturday on the need for a hasty political solution to end the carnage in Syria as the collapse of Lebanon’s government triggered fresh fears of a regional spillover.

Winding up two-day talks with EU foreign ministers, in which Britain and France failed to win support from partners to arm Syria’s rebels, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the onus instead had to be on a political settlement.

Influential Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt meanwhile said funneling weapons to Syria’s insurgents as suggested by London and Paris would only fan the conflict and undermine efforts to seek a negotiated settlement.

“We must try to give new momentum to a political solution,” Ashton said, including fresh economic and political support to the opposition and further pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to negotiate.

“I cannot say how much we have a sense of urgency on Syria and the neighboring countries,” she said at a news conference held after Lebanon’s government fell over divisions triggered by the two-year civil war across the border.

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 Syrian rebels topped talks between the EU foreign ministers in Dublin.

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 several times at least before then.

But there was little to no appetite for the push by Britain and France.

“I think among all the foreign ministers there is a determination that it is only by a political solution that we can get an end to the carnage in Syria,” said Sweden’s Bildt.

While reviewing existing sanctions was part of the effort to reach a political solution, EU nations remained reluctant to supply offensive weapons to the opposition, Bildt said.

“It was very difficult to detect any enthusiasm for the further arming of a conflict that is already much too armed,” Bildt said after the talks.

“A number of ministers expressed the concern that it was going to lead to an intensification of the fighting, that it was going to open the floodgates from other quarters and the prolongation of the conflict and might complicate the search for a political solution that everyone agrees is the most important thing.”

Bildt, who played a prominent role in seeking an end to the Balkans conflicts in the mid-1990s -- notably acting on behalf of the EU and U.N. -- said there was “an interesting parallel” between the Balkans and Syria, where U.N. Security Council permanent members China and Russia are in disagreement with the others.

The Bosnian war, which began in April 1992, could have ended the following summer in 1993 instead of autumn 1995 if international actors had stayed on the same page, he said.

But “different actors were going into different directions and that prolonged the war,” he said. “So we must not repeat that mistake. It is only by getting the international community together that we have any possibility of a political solution.”