European Union to lift arms embargo on Syrian rebels

Updated 7:10 a.m. ET May 28, 2013

BRUSSELSThe European Union is going to lift its arms embargo on Syria rebels, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday.

The prospect of EU nations being able to send weapons to the rebels while maintaining stiff economic sanctions against the Syrian regime also sends a message to Russia. Moscow has unabashedly sent weapons to the regime -- and EU arms deliveries could partially re-balance the firepower in the war.

Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, lashed out at the move, saying it undermines the efforts of both Russia and the U.S to mediate peace talks. He called the decision "a manifestation of double standards."

Ryabkov also confirmed that Moscow will provide Syria with state-of-the art air defense missiles to prevent foreign intervention in the country. He wouldn't say whether Russia has shipped any of the long-range S-300 air defense missile systems, but added that Moscow isn't going to abandon the deal despite strong Western and Israeli criticism.

A senior figure in the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group welcomed the EU decision to let the bloc's arms embargo expire, calling it a "positive" step.

Syrian National Coalition member Louay Safi says however that a delay in deciding to provide weapons until August means that the Syrian regime can continue killing Syrians.

Earlier, Austria's foreign minister said that the European Union's top diplomats have failed to agree about how to deal with Syria's civil war, and EU sanctions against Bashar Assad's regime are likely to expire on June 1.

During a break from critical EU talks aimed to work out a common position on Syria, Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told reporters he was concerned about what he called a failure to reach a common position and said that after the EU sanctions collapse "everybody is entitled to deliver weapons to the Assad regime or to the opposition."

But he said he also was holding out hope for a last-minute reversal that could salvage an accord in the talks set to continue deep into the evening.

Speaking at an impromptu news conference, Spindelegger said that during the talks France and Britain had agreed not to deliver any weapons until Aug. 1. Those two countries -- the EU's biggest military powers -- have been pushing the bloc to lift its embargo on delivery of weapons into Syria to help the embattled opposition.

British and French diplomats did not immediately return calls seeking comment after Spindelegger's remarks.

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 27-nation bloc also amended the arms embargo to allow for non-lethal equipment and medicine to protect Syrian civilians. If not renewed, all those measures expire at the end of May.

Meanwhile, Assad's government has agreed in principle to participate in peace talks in Geneva next month. The United States and Russia hope to bring together the Syrian government and opposition for direct talks, but the exact date, agenda and participants still remains unclear.

Washington has also 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.

Several EU ministers said arming the opposition would create a more-level playing field that could force Assad into a negotiated settlement.

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