Last updated: 16 March, 2013

EU’s Ashton cautious on arming Syrian rebels

The European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, urged caution Saturday on a proposal by Britain and France to arm the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“We have to work through, very carefully, the best understanding we can have of what would be the implications,” she said, the day after the EU wrapped up a summit without reaching agreement on easing an arms embargo to allow weapons shipments to the rebels.

“Any decision to lift an arms embargo, you need to consider the implications of that in a number of different ways,” Ashton said in response to a question at the Brussels Forum, an annual conference on transatlantic relations.

“Would putting more weapons into the field make it more or less likely that others will do the same? What would be the response of Assad, based on what we know about his response so far? Would it stop people being killed or would it kill people faster?”, she asked.

London and Paris have shaken up EU diplomacy on Syria by pushing for the across-the-board arms embargo to be changed in order to arm the Syrian rebels, a bid to tip the balance in their favour in the two-year-old uprising against Assad’s regime.

EU leaders agreed Friday in Brussels to put off further discussions on the embargo until a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Dublin next week.

Several member states have expressed strong opposition to easing the embargo, saying a flood of weapons into Syria would only escalate the bloodshed.

But London and Paris, frustrated over the failure of diplomatic measures to end the conflict, have voiced readiness to break ranks with their European partners if the embargo is not changed.

The conflict in Syria has killed 70,000 people and forced millions from their homes, including one million who have fled the country, according to the United Nations.