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EU arms embargo on Syria

Two years after the conflict in Syria, which claimed about 70,000 lives so far, the European Union still has an arms embargo in place against that country. However, the arms embargo is due to expire on June 1. Therefore, a debate is taking place as to whether the EU should renew the embargo, relax it or get rid of it completely.

Opposing member states feel that lifting the arms embargo could lead to conflict on a greater scale

Since late 2012, both the UK and France have pushed other EU member states to relax the embargo.

The UK feels that a more flexible approach is necessary to assist the peace talks as it would put extra pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In addition, the UK feels that by providing rebels with arms they will be in a better position to response should the Syrian regime engage in a chemical attack.

The UK has also stated there is the threat of a regional catastrophe in Syria as conflict increases with neither the Syrian regime nor the Syrian rebels looking likely to engage in the peace talks.

The US and Russia are leading the Syrian peace talks initiative. The initiative was based on a decision taken in Geneva in 2012. The decision also sought the creation of a transitional Syrian government. However, this aspect of the decision was never implemented due to confusion over the terminology used.

US State Secretary John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have pledged to hold an international summit on the situation in Syria, possibly this month.

The EU arms embargo on Syria was part of a package of sanctions. It is quite likely that the embargo will be one of the main issues debated at the meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers due to take place on Monday. There is a block of 10 to 12 member states that strongly oppose lifting or even amending the embargo. These include Sweden, Luxembourg and Austria. Germany and Italy appear to be the most vocal in their opposition.

These opposing member states feel that lifting the arms embargo or even relaxing it could lead to conflict on a greater scale in the area as they mistrust the Syrian rebel groups. Furthermore, they are hoping that the US-Russia peace initiative will resolve the situation without any military intervention from the West and want to give such peace talks a chance.

However, many of these member states are beginning to experience ‘Syria fatigue’ due to the constant pressure from both the UK and France over the past six months to relax the embargo. In February, the embargo was rolled over for three months.

As the arms embargo is a foreign affairs issue, any decision taken to relax or amend it must be accepted by all of the EU foreign affairs ministers.

The embargo was already relaxed in recent months to allow non-lethal material, training and assistance be provided to the Syrian rebels.

France will more than likely call for the embargo to be completely lifted. However, it will wait until after the Geneva peace talks due to take place in June. It has also commented on the option of extending the current embargo for one more month to see the outcome of these peace talks.

France feels it is too soon to say whether the embargo will be extended and is waiting for the detailed briefing from the US and Russia. If a decision is take not to fully lift the embargo, France will be pushing for changes.

The UK has proposed excluding the main opposition group in Syria from the embargo and to distribute arms under carefully supervised circumstances.

Kerry is this week having talks in Jordan and Oman to try to find a way to advance the political transition in Syria through peaceful negotiations.

David Casa is a Nationalist MEP.

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