It is important to show we are prepared to amend our arms embargo so that the Assad regime gets a clear signal that it has to negotiate seriously. —William Hague
BRUSSELS — The European Union nations remain divided on Monday whether to ease sanctions against Syria to allow for weapons shipments to rebels fighting the regime of Syria's President Bashar Assad.
Britain is the most outspoken proponent of relaxing the arms embargo but faces opposition from some members that feel more weapons would only increase the killings and tarnish the EU's reputation as a peace broker.
Austria's foreign minister, whose country opposes arms deliveries to the rebels, says that if there is no agreement the arms embargo would collapse.
"The positions are far apart," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. He said it was not clear if the EU foreign ministers will reach an agreement on the issue.
Assad has been using extensive firepower against lightly armed rebel factions. More than 70,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad's regime erupted in March 2011. Meanwhile, both sides have agreed in principle to enter direct talks in Geneva next month.
Several nations say that arming the opposition would create a level playing field that would force Assad into a negotiated settlement.
"It is important to show we are prepared to amend our arms embargo so that the Assad regime gets a clear signal that it has to negotiate seriously," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
The date, agenda and list of participants for the conference remain unclear, and wide gaps persist about its objectives.
Austria was among the holdouts to keep the EU from providing weapons, arguing it would only acerbate an already horrific situation.
"We just received the Nobel Peace Prize and to now go in the direction of intentionally getting involved in a conflict with weapon deliveries, I think that is wrong," Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said.
"To turn and reverse our line would not help in the conflict," he said.
Any decision would require unanimity among the 27 member states, but failing to come up with a decision would leave options for individual member states open and show a deeply divided EU to the whole world.
"If there is no compromise, then there is no sanctions regime," said Spindelegger. "In my view that would be fatal, also for those who now absolutely want to deliver weapons."
Britain's Hague, however, said that standing still was no option and that the moderate opposition needed to be boosted.
"Most of the world denies them the means to defend themselves, so that is creating extremism radicalizing people. We are reaching the limits of how long we can go on with that situation."
And in that sense, there were bigger issues involved than EU unity.
"It is important to be doing the right thing for Syria. That is more important than whether the EU is able to stick together on every detail on this," Hague said.
Beyond the moral question of providing arms in a civil war, there are also fears that delivering weapons to the opposition would open the way for extremist groups and terrorists to get hold of weapons that could then be targeted against the EU.
Despite the apparent incompatibility of views, diplomats still hold out hope for a common stand by the time the meeting ends or, at least, until the current arms embargo expires by Friday night.
There is still room for compromise on just what equipment could be delivered, to which groups, and within what deadline.
"Disagreement in the EU, that would be the wrong signal," said Westerwelle. "The more cohesive Europe acts, the more influence we will have on overcoming the current violence in Syria."
Over the past two years, the EU has steadily increased the restrictive measures against the Assad regime, including visa restrictions and economic sanctions. On Feb. 28, it also amended a full arms embargo to allow for non-lethal equipment and medicine to protect the civilians in the conflict. If not renewed, all those measures expire at the end of the month.