British Foreign Secretary William Hague says the European Union has decided to lift the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition while maintaining all other sanctions against Bashar Assad’s regime after June 1, the Associated Press reported.
Hague said after the meeting Monday that the decision “sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime.”
The all-day meeting laid bare EU hesitation on feeding arms in a foreign conflict only months after it won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Earlier, the EU was on a deadlock to cast a decision on Syrian arms embargo. Britain and France have pushed to allow European governments to deliver arms. Austria and other EU capitals oppose such moves.
The EU’s diplomatic service produced several proposals aimed at finding middle ground between the two camps but none had won the required unanimous support by the time ministers took a break from talks for dinner on Monday evening.
A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said discussions in the late evening would address the “next steps,” and a German diplomat said declaring talks over was premature.
“There is still a chance for a political consensus,” the diplomat said.
EU sanctions on Syria, including asset freezes and travel bans on Assad and senior Syrian officials as well as the arms embargo, expire on Saturday.
Unless EU governments agree on what to do about the arms embargo before then, the entire EU sanctions package could collapse.
Austrian troops in the Golan Heights
Meanwhile, in response to whether Austria will withdraw its peacekeeping troops from the Golan Heights, Austria’s Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said: “No one knows, but what I do know is that no compromise is possible.”
“Taking into consideration that the embargo may be automatically lifted due to a lack of consensus, it will be difficult for us to maintain our forces [in the Golan]. Our government will take a decision in light of what will be announced today,” he told Al Arabiya’s correspondent on Monday.
The Austrian defense minister announced last week that his country may pull its peacekeeping troops from the Golan Heights, evacuating the U.N. buffer zone, as Syria and Israel exchanged fire across a long dormant frontline now inflamed by civil war.
According to the United Nations, more than 80,000 people have been killed since the March 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Russia, US Diplomats meet
In a related story, top U.S. and Russian diplomats met Monday to try to accelerate frustratingly slow peace efforts in Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that arranging a Syria peace conference was a “tall order,” as he emerged from talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris.
Kerry told the same briefing that the two countries were committed to the Geneva Communique from a 2012 Syria meeting that called for a transitional government to be chosen by mutual consent of Bashar al-Assad’s government and opposition groups.
Kerry and Lavrov, who were due to meet their French counterpart Laurent Fabius later for dinner, also agreed they were worried about the possible use of chemical weapons in the conflict.
"Both of us expressed our mutual concerns about any potential use of chemical weapons and the need to really get the evidence and as certain what has happened in that regard. Both Russia, and the United States – if it were being used – object to that very, very strongly,” Kerry said.