Late in the day, the European Union agreed to allow the lapse of a ban on arms deliveries to Syria’s rebels. Foreign ministers from the 27-nation union, meeting in the Belgian capital, failed to muster the votes for renewing the arms embargo, which will expire Friday.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague declared in a tweet the “arms embargo on Syrian opposition ended,” though there was no immediate decision to send arms. “Other sanctions remain” in place, he said, including sweeping restrictions on trade with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hague, in separate comments, said that the E.U. decision “sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime,” the Associated Press reported.
The E.U. decision not to extend the embargo followed a contentious all-day meeting on whether to allow more military backing for the rebels. France and Britain urged an end to the embargo, seeking to increase pressure on Assad, while other governments, Austria in particular, countered that delivering weapons to the rebels would only increase the bloodshed and that Europe should stick to nonlethal aid such as flak vests, night-vision goggles and medicines.
The lack of agreement had raised the possibility of each E.U. country deciding on its own whether to respond to rebel appeals for more-advanced weapons, particularly antitank and antiaircraft missiles.
As the deliberations were underway in Brussels, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) slipped into Syria on Monday in a surprise visit intended to reinforce his recent calls for arming the rebels.
The former GOP presidential candidate, in the region for an economics forum, crossed the Turkish-Syrian frontier with a rebel commander, Gen. Salim Idriss, and met with opposition leaders for several hours, spokesmen for McCain and a key rebel alliance confirmed. McCain became the first U.S. senator to meet with Assad’s armed opponents inside Syria since the uprising began more than two years ago.
A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army said McCain and rebel leaders “discussed solutions to help remove” Assad, whose regime has gained momentum in recent days as military and diplomatic efforts to oust him have appeared to falter.
“He was very open and promised to push for us with the U.S. administration,” Louay al-Mokdad, the rebel group’s political and media coordinator, said in a phone interview from inside Syria. “We asked about targeted strikes, and we briefed him about Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.”