EU Ministers Reject Arming Syrian Rebels


European Union foreign ministers announced Monday that they were keeping current sanctions against Syria in place for three months, rejecting attempts to alter an embargo on the country so that arms could be funneled to rebels fighting President Bashar Assad.

However, in an apparent nod to the UK, which had argued that the rebels should be exempted from the embargo, the ministers adopted a non-specific amendment “so as to provide greater non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians.”

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that the meaning of that would be defined in meetings among the representatives of member countries to the union. She denied to reporters that the wording was a political fudge.

Still, British Foreign Secretary William Hague appeared to claim victory, saying many countries had not even wanted to discuss changing the embargo at a meeting in November.

“Most states were opposed to any amendment of the embargo and today we have amended it in a very important way, in a couple of very important ways,” Hague said.

He added that further amendments could be made three months from now, an indication that Britain might continue its push to arm the rebels.

Several EU foreign ministers said, in strong terms, that they opposed sending any more arms into the ravaged country.

That view was supported Monday by a new report by a UN-appointed panel that said Syria’s civil war is becoming increasingly sectarian and the behavior of both sides is growing more and more radicalized. The UN says nearly 70,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict since the revolt against Assad began in March 2011.

Despite the appalling violence, diplomatic efforts continue. Mouaz al-Khatib, the president of the opposition coalition, has said he would negotiate with representatives of Syria’s governing party — though not with Assad or members of his security services.

Brahimi, the international envoy, says that offer “challenges the Syrian government to fulfill its often-repeated assertion that it is ready for dialogue and a peaceful settlement.”

The report released in Geneva on Monday by the UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria made for alarming reading.

Discussing events since July, it said human rights abuses by anti-government groups did not “reach the intensity and scale of those committed by government forces and affiliated militia.” But it said rebels have continued to endanger civilians by placing military targets in civilian areas.

The commission, set up by the UN Human Rights Council, hasn’t been able to enter the country and said that “significantly limited” its ability to investigate all alleged abuses — particularly those committed by armed anti-government groups.