Hezbollah has denied that it is formally dispatching members of its militia to help Assad, though its leaders have acknowledged that some of its supporters living in the porous border region have participated in the fighting.
The allegations coincide with an intensified rebel offensive to capture the last government outposts in and around the strategic northern city of Aleppo, where fighting continued Monday.
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 means in practical terms. Britain and other European governments already have supplied nonlethal aid such as communications gear. According to diplomats in Brussels and in 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 most other E.U. governments opposed this idea.
“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 the 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 also has been a champion of the Syrian rebel coalition, offering it early diplomatic recognition and until recently urging a modification of the E.U. arms embargo similar to what Britain proposed. But 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 underway.
Hollande’s government also has fresh experience with the unintended consequences of Western help to the rebels who overthrew Moammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. French soldiers dispatched to Mali last month have been fighting Islamist extremists equipped largely with arms plundered from Libyan arsenals after Gaddafi fell.
Sly reported from Beirut. Ahmed Ramadan contributed from Beirut.