PARIS — The Obama administration’s go-slow policy on Syria came under renewed pressure Monday as European leaders opted to remove a legal hurdle that had blocked arms flows to rebel groups, while a top Republican critic swooped into Syria to dramatize what he says is the opposition’s urgent need for direct military aid.
The new support for Syria’s embattled opposition came amid high-level diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry huddled in the French capital with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to explore prospects for a peace conference that would bring together rebels and Syrian government officials.
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.”
McCain’s message was that the international community “needs to take serious steps to help us,” Mokdad said. A spokesman for McCain declined to provide details of the visit.
President Obama has resisted appeals for directly arming the rebels, in part because of concerns about the growing presence of al-Qaeda-aligned extremists within the opposition. While stepping up humanitarian and other nonlethal aid in recent weeks, the White House continues to voice reluctance about a deepening U.S. involvement in yet another Middle East conflict.
But the administration’s cautious approach has come under increasing criticism in recent days as Assad’s forces, with new backing from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah and weapons from Iran, have forced the fragmented, ill-trained rebels into retreat across several fronts.
Monday’s dramatic display of support for the rebels contrasted with plodding diplomatic efforts in Paris, where Kerry met for hours with Lavrov to discuss next month’s proposed peace talks. The two emerged from a private dinner declaring continued support for a political settlement.
“We are committed to this,” Kerry said in a joint news conference with Lavrov, with whom he plans to convene talks about ending a war that he said last week had killed “upwards of 100,000” people. “We both want to make this conference happen, if possible, together with many other countries that joined up.”
The Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, said Sunday that Assad’s government “in principle” was ready to attend the Geneva conference. But on the rebel side, a grinding four days of talks in Istanbul, designed in part to get ready for the peace negotiations, have yielded little toward the goal of broadening the representation of the Syrian Opposition Coalition to include more secular members, as hoped for by the United States and other supporters.
By Monday, only eight of a planned 25 new members had been chosen. The meeting was planned for three days, but it was extended to six because of discord among factions and leaders. The coalition has yet to discuss its participation at Geneva, according to Haitham Maleh, a veteran opposition figure.
Maleh, in a telephone interview, blamed meddling from the representatives of outside powers “out in the hallway,” which he said has 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.”
McCain’s visit to Syria followed increasingly urgent appeals for assistance to the opposition to reverse recent setbacks on the battlefield. During a news conference Saturday in Jordan, McCain warned that Assad was gaining momentum.
McCain, one of the most vocal proponents in Washington for direct military aid for the Syrian rebels, had earlier called for deployment of U.S.-made Patriot antimissile batteries in Jordan, Syria’s southern neighbor. Similar batteries have been provided to Turkey, a NATO member, as protection against a possible missile launch from Syria.
“We are prepared to take every step to protect the Jordanian regime’s stability, its people and its territory,” McCain told the Jordan Times newspaper while attending the World Economic Forum at a Jordanian Dead Sea resort. “The provision of Patriot missiles comes under this protection.”
McCain, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the newspaper that the Patriot batteries could serve as a “first step” in establishing a proposed buffer zone inside Syria where refugees and other noncombatants could enjoy some protection against Syrian air assaults.
Mohammad Momani, a Jordanian government spokesman, confirmed that Amman has begun talks with “friendly states” over the possible deployment of antimissile batteries to the Jordan-Syria border. A senior Jordanian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the diplomatically sensitive request, said the Patriot system, if obtained, would be used “strictly for defensive purposes,” to protect residents against missiles fired into Jordan’s airspace, deliberately or by accident.
Jordan’s interest in boosting its defensive capability has increased in recent days after a series of deadly exchanges between pro- and anti-Assad forces across Syria’s border with Lebanon.
Warrick reported from Washington. Edward Cody in Paris and Loveday Morris in Beirut contributed to this report.