E.U. split over arming Syrian rebels; rebel coalition infighting hampers effort

Yves Logghe/AP - British Foreign Secretary William Hague, left, talks with Belgium's Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, during the EU foreign ministers meeting, in Brussels, Monday, May 27, 2013. EU nations remain divided on whether to ease sanctions against Syria to allow for weapons shipments to rebels fighting the regime of Syria President Bashar al-Assad.

BEIRUT — As European Union foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday to discuss an arms embargo that prevents member states from arming Syrian rebels, divisions in the 27-member bloc and the Syrian opposition imperiled chances of it being lifted.

There has been a renewed push, led by nations including Britain and France, to present a more unified and representative face for the opposition before the E.U. summit as they lobby for the option to arm rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But those efforts have been stymied by infighting at an opposition meeting in Ankara, Turkey.

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A grinding four days of talks in the Turkish capital have, so far, yielded just eight of a planned 25 new members for the Syrian Opposition Coalition. The meeting, originally planned for three days but extended to six, comes at a crucial time for diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria, ahead of the E.U. summit and planned U.S.-Russian-backed peace talks next month.

European nations are divided on whether to lift the arms embargo, with infighting in Ankara unlikely to win support for the push.

“The positions are far apart,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told the Associated Press. The decision to lift the embargo requires a unanimous decision from all 27 member states. Austria is among those that has raised objections.

Britain has argued that the incentive of potential military support is necessary to get the opposition to the table in Geneva. The Syrian government said Sunday that it would attend talks “in principle,” but there is yet to be a decision from the opposition coalition— one of the aims of the Ankara meeting.

“It’s not been discussed at all yet,” leading opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh said in a phone interview from Ankara. He said meddling from the representatives of outside powers “out in the hallway” had slowed the talks and is further fracturing the coalition.

“There is a struggle among the groups themselves, and by others taking certain groups to the side and talking to them, that is not helping,” he said. “Everybody has their own interests, and nobody is putting Syria first.”

He did not specify which outside powers were “meddling,” but Western nations and Saudi Arabia are seeking to expand the group and water down the influence of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Eight new members were added to the 60-member coalition in the early hours Monday morning in a meeting that had dragged through the night.

“This can only be a first stage. They need to do more than that to bring enough people in and look more representative,” a Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said in a phone interview from Ankara. “We will encourage them to go further and include more women, secularists and minorities.”

The diplomat said the failure to agree on an larger expansion before the Brussels meeting was “an opportunity lost.”

Michel Kilo, a veteran opposition figure who headed the liberal bloc being considered for admission to the coalition, expressed exasperation.

“We were talking about 25 names as the basis for our negotiations. Then there was agreement on 22, and then the number dropped to 20, then to 18, then to 15, then to five,” he said at the meeting, according to the Reuters news agency. “I do not think you have a desire to cooperate and hold our extended hand. . . .We wish you all the best.”

Amid the infighting, the coalition has yet to decide on a new leader, with the vote having been postponed since Saturday.

 
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