PARIS – Rejecting a push by Britain, European governments on Monday decided against providing weapons to Syrian rebel forces, expressing fears that more arms would only lead to more bloodshed in a conflict that already has taken nearly 70,000 lives.
The decision, by European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, illustrates the difficulty that Europe and the United States have had in dealing with the 2-year-old Syrian civil war despite their unanimous condemnation of President Bashar Assad and his ruthless battle to remain in power.
The White House, while calling on Assad to step down, has also refused repeated rebel appeals for more advanced weaponry, particularly ground-to-air missiles to confront Assad’s fighter jets and helicopter gunships. U.S. officials and European leaders have cited fears that the weapons could end up in the hands of Islamist extremists who form an important and growing segment of rebel military forces.
A report issued Monday in Geneva by the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said the Islamist fighters include foreigners from Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt that have been drawn to the conflict because they view it as a Sunni jihad against Assad’s government, which, although secular, is dominated by Alawites, a branch of Shiism.
The number of such foreigners is a small proportion of the total uprising, according to news agency accounts of the report, but they are considered particularly important because of their experience in irregular warfare and use of homemade bombs. Nevertheless, the commission urged rebel leaders in the umbrella National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces to dissociate themselves from the Islamic groups, which it said would make it easier for Europe, the United States and others to provide aid.
“The war has become colored by sectarianism, permeated by opportunistic criminality and aggravated by the presence of foreign fighters and extremist groups,” it added.
The European Union imposed an arms embargo against Syria in May 2011, covering the government as well as the rebels, but it was scheduled to expire March 1. Monday’s decision renewed the ban for three more months but, in what was portrayed as a compromise, it contained a promise to alter the terms to permit the supply of more nonlethal equipment designed to save civilian lives.
The ministers did not spell out what that meant in practical terms. Britain and other European governments already have supplied such nonlethal aid as communications gear. According to diplomats cited in Brussels and London, the British government had proposed renewing the embargo against the government but not the rebels, opening the way for delivery of lethal military equipment, but this was opposed by most other EU governments.
“The U.K. believes international action so far has fallen short,” the British Foreign Ministry said in a statement in London. “In the absence of a diplomatic breakthrough, it is right that we continue to consider all options to protect civilians and to assist the National Coalition and other opposition groups opposed to extremism.”
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. and Arab League special envoy, has been seeking to arrange negotiations between Assad’s government and the rebel coalition, most recently at U.N. headquarters in New York. Rebel coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib has agreed in principle, but refuses to talk with Assad or his security services.
France has also been a champion of the Syrian rebel coalition, offering it early diplomatic recognition and until recently urging a modification of the EU arms embargo similar to what Britain proposed. However, French President Francois Hollande said recently that sending arms to the rebels now would be an unwelcome signal while Brahimi’s efforts for a diplomatic solution are still under way.
Hollande’s government also has acquired fresh experience with the unintended consequences of Western help to rebels who overthrew Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in 2011. French soldiers dispatched to Mali last month have been fighting Islamic extremists equipped largely with arms plundered from Libyan arsenals after Gadhafi fell.