But the decision has opened a possible route for Britain and France, which have been leading the charge in the West for more support to the Syrian opposition, to act unilaterally should they choose to do so.
After the French intervention in Mali in January, Monday’s move once again underscored the inability of the E.U. to forge a united front on major foreign policy issues. It was bitterly opposed by a number of European countries, including Austria. They fear that any arms sent to the rebels could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists within the opposition and lead to more regional spillover of the conflict.
“We are a peace community, and we would like to stay as a peace community,” Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told journalists in Paris. Spindelegger said Britain and France have agreed not to deliver any weapons until at least August, to give more time to international attempts at brokering a peace deal.
In Washington, Obama administration officials voiced strong support for letting the embargo lapse, saying its end would contribute to the two-track policy pursued by supporters of the Syrian opposition: backing the rebels while pushing for a political settlement.
“We welcome the E.U. action,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
At the same time, Carney and others said the administration opposes Russian shipments of arms, including sophisticated S-300 air defense systems, to the Assad regime.
“We condemn all support of arms to the regime,” said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell. “We’ve seen how the regime uses those arms. When we’re talking about the opposition, that’s a different group. And, clearly, they are the people who are defending themselves in the face of an enormous onslaught and a despicable onslaught of violence against themselves.”
Criticism from Russia
Russia denounced the E.U. action, saying it placed Europeans on the brink of supplying arms to a murky rebel force.
“You cannot declare the wish to stop the bloodshed on one hand and continue to pump armaments into Syria on the other hand,” Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, said Tuesday at a news conference in Moscow.
In a commentary posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry Web site, spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Moscow is concerned that the E.U. decision might persuade Syrian rebel groups not to join a peace conference, led by Russia and the United States, that is tentatively planned for next month.