EU foreign ministers sharply divided over Syria arms embargo

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EU foreign ministers were sharply divided on Monday over lifting an embargo to arm Syrian rebels, with Britain’s delegate rejecting the complication of talks.

“It is important to show that we are prepared to amend our arms embargo that the Assad regime gets a clear signal that it has to negotiate seriously,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in comments broadcast on BBC television.

Hague then said that if that were not possible, each country could have its own sanctions policy.

“Let’s get people to the table and see if their positions have changed,” he said.

Many EU nations are fiercely opposed to sending more weapons into a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, unlike London and Paris who have been pushing their partners to amend an existing arms embargo.

The countries in support of sending arms believe the move will help tip the military balance in favor of the rebels fighting Assad.

The ministers however are racing against the clock to find a solution before the expiry at midnight Friday of a far-reaching package of EU sanctions against the Assad regime, including the blanket arms embargo.

Britain and France want the embargo maintained against Assad but relaxed against the opposition Syrian National Coalition, but a group of nations including Austria, Finland, the Czech Republic and Sweden want no change, or at least none before a proposed peace conference being pushed by Russia and the United States.

Austria’s Michael Spindelegger said he had talked to Hague before the meeting to tell him that “we have arguments against” easing the arms embargo, according to AFP news agency.

If there has to be an amendment, Spindelegger said he hoped to find a compromise “to (extend) the arms embargo” but still allow time to “see what comes out of” the mooted second peace conference in Geneva.

Several other ministers made similar remarks as they went into Monday’s meeting, suggesting that a wait-and-see approach was best for the moment.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian and French counterparts in Paris Monday, pushing the idea for a “Geneva 2” conference aimed at ending the more than two-year conflict, which activists say has killed more than 94,000 people.

With the Syrian opposition deeply divided, Damascus has upped the ante, saying it would attend a new Geneva conference as a “good opportunity for a political solution.”

The opposition’s long-standing position is that it will not negotiate until Assad quits.