November 28, 2012 6:39 pm

EU shortens arms embargo against Syria

The EU is to shorten the duration of its arms embargo against Syria, opening the possibility that member states could supply weapons to groups opposing President Bashar al-Assad.

The EU embargo was to have been extended for another 12 months after its expiration on December 1. Yet a UK-led campaign won an adjustment on Wednesday so that the renewal will last only three months.

The effect, say diplomats, is that the EU will have more flexibility to decide to send arms to Syrian opposition groups. France also supported the change.

A UK spokesperson said the government was still seeking a “diplomatic solution” to the Syria crisis but added: “We must build sensible contingency into our policy – to retain the flexibility to change our position and make sure that we can regularly review our policy in light of developments.”

The shift, which is to be formalised on Friday, is a further sign of western support for the refashioned Syrian opposition, which had struggled to win recognition abroad because of its lack of unity. France and Britain have granted formal recognition to the Syrian National Coalition.

The EU has struggled to gain more leverage in Syria, with diplomats acknowledging that more than a dozen rounds of sanctions, including an oil embargo and asset freezes on top officials, have had little effect on Mr Assad’s regime.

EU officials have expressed alarm in recent weeks at signs the conflict is destabilising the region. They are worried that the humanitarian situation within Syria could become a wider disaster with the onset of winter.

The Friends of Syria group, made up of outside supporters of the opposition, is set to meet in Morocco in December to discuss ways of bolstering the Coalition, which has emerged as the main opposition faction after months of wrangling between dissidents. The opposition has been lobbying for more sophisticated weapons supplies.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been the main sources of mostly light arms so far. The SNC is working on setting up a military council to give greater assurance that weapons will not fall into the wrong hands at a time of growing concern about foreign jihadis trickling into Syria to fight alongside an increasingly radicalised local Islamist opposition.

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