European Union foreign ministers were set Monday
for a showdown over whether to funnel weapons to the Syrian
opposition, with only days left to avoid the expiry of all EU
sanctions on the war-torn country.
The EU had introduced an arms embargo on Syria in May 2011, in a bid to help stop the violence pitting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against opposition forces.
With some 80,000 people now dead in Syria, Britain - with backing from France - wants to bolster the moderate Syrian opposition groups by exempting them from the embargo. Supporters argue that such a move is only fair, given that the Syrian regime is armed by Russia and Iran.
"We have not taken the decision to provide arms, but we think (EU) member states should have the flexibility to do so," a British source said last week.
But other EU countries - most notably Austria, the Czech Republic and Sweden - firmly oppose a partial lifting of the embargo, arguing that more arms will only make the conflict worst.
There is also concern about how such a move could affect a Syria peace-seeking conference expected to be held in Geneva next month.
"Diplomacy should be the priority," said Anna Macdonald of the Oxfam aid agency. "There are no easy answers when trying to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but sending more arms and ammunition clearly isn't one of them."
Austria has upped the ante by threatening to withdraw its United Nations peacekeepers from the Golan Heights because of safety concerns if weapons are sent to Syria.
With 387 soldiers, Austria is the largest and only EU contributor to the UN deployment on the Syrian-Israeli border.
Diplomats in Brussels said a compromise may end up emerging during Monday's talks, for instance allowing the shipment of only very specific equipment in exchange for strict guarantees.
If no deal is struck by midnight on Friday, the arms embargo will expire - and with it all other EU sanctions on Syria, which include an oil embargo and an array of travel bans and asset freezes.
Also on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are due to meet in Paris for further talks on Syria.
Washington and Moscow unveiled earlier this month a plan to bring both Damascus and the opposition to the table to negotiate an end to the country's 26-month conflict.
The Syrian regime said Sunday that it is willing to participate in the Geneva conference. Officials in the main opposition Syrian National Coalition have also signaled their readiness, but said they first wanted guarantees that al-Assad would step down eventually.
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