Brussels: The European Union said its member states within days will be able to send weapons to help Syria`s outgunned rebels, seeking to pressure President Bashar Assad`s regime ahead of planned peace talks mediated by the United States and Russia.
Though no EU country has any such plans now to send arms, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the decision "sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime”. He spoke after an all-day meeting of foreign ministers late Monday that laid bare EU hesitation on feeding arms in a foreign conflict only months after the 27-member bloc won the Nobel Peace Prize.
"It is extremely important not to do anything to rock the boat. Start delivering weapons now would rock the boat. No one is intending to do that," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.
But in a bid to force Syria to participate in good faith at the prospective "Geneva II" talks next month, the meeting in Brussels dangled the option of sending in weapons and military equipment as soon as Saturday, when the current sanctions regime ends.
The prospect of EU weapons for the rebels, while maintaining stiff economic sanctions against Assad`s regime, also sends a message to Russia. Moscow has unabashedly sent weapons to Assad`s regime and EU arms deliveries could partially re-balance the civil war when it comes to firepower.
Several EU ministers said arming the opposition would create a more level playing field that could force Assad into a negotiated settlement.
Britain and France, the EU`s biggest military powers, had been pushing the bloc to lift its embargo on delivery of weapons into Syria to help the embattled opposition. But Austria, which has sent peacekeepers to the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel, was vocally opposed one of several EU countries that argued that the region is already awash in weapons.
EU countries will individually examine their export license applications one by one and will not proceed "at this stage" with deliveries of military equipment, the joint declaration said, though it did not specify when that might change.