EU will not lift Syria arms embargo, but offers rebels more aid

BRUSSELS — European Union foreign ministers on Monday stopped short of meeting Britain’s demand to lift an arms embargo on Syria but agreed to allow “non-lethal” aid and “technical assistance” to flow to the opposition.

“We would’ve gone further, some were against. This is a compromise,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague at the close of talks with his 26 EU counterparts. “We will return to it in three months.”

After weeks of “divisive” talk on whether to arm Syria’s rebels, the ministers in a lengthy session agreed to renew sanctions against President Bashar Assad until the end of May that notably bar the supply of any lethal weaponry to the country — regime or rebel.

But this was while “amending them so as to provide greater non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians”, an EU statement said.

The ministers would again “assess and review, if necessary, the sanctions regime” after three months, it added.

Hague said details on goods or expertise — such as trainers, helmets or protective clothing — likely to flow to Syria would be issued in the coming days, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said legal experts would ensure the change was in line with common policy.

“It’s not about military support,” said Ashton. “It’s about how to make sure to give the best possible support to the protection of civilians.”

Hague, however, said the agreement to amend the arms embargo “establishes an extremely important precedent”.

The bloc’s wide-ranging measures against Syria, including the arms ban but also targeting scores of Assad cronies and regime-friendly firms, as well as oil, trade and finance, expire at the end of the month.

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A Free Syrian Army fighter holds an improvised mortar shell inside a factory, which previously manufactured steel and iron, in Aleppo on Monday (Reuters photo)

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