BY DON MELVIN
Monday, March 11, 2013
EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Catherine Ashton addresses the media prior to an EU Foreign Ministers meeting at the EU Council building in Brussels, Monday, March 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
BRUSSELS - The European Union will soon have to consider allowing munitions to be funneled to the outgunned Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad, the French foreign minister said Monday.
But an international diplomat trying to achieve peace in Syria countered that, without a political solution, the country risks descending to a state "worse than Somalia."
Both men made their comments at the end of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, at which no apparent move was made to alter the blanket EU embargo against shipping arms to Syria.
That did not sit well with the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius.
"There is a lack of balance between the Assad regime, which has weapons coming from Iran and Russia — powerful weapons — and the (rebel) National Coalition, which doesn't have the same weapons," Fabius said.
"This question of the arms embargo, which was raised a couple of weeks ago, will have to be raised again very soon, because we cannot accept such an unbalanced state, which leads to the slaughter of the population."
So far, 70,000 people are estimated to have died in Syria's civil war, which erupted as a popular uprising almost exactly two years ago.
Gen. Salim Idris, head of the rebel army, travelled to Brussels last week to plead for arms from the international community, saying more heavy weaponry would enable the rebels to protect civilians.
But diplomats from some EU countries have said they believe that more guns is the last thing Syria needs.
"In the end, it's going to have to be a political solution," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after the meeting ended.
The foreign ministers met Monday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the special representative for Syria of the United Nations and the Arab League, who is trying to effect a political settlement. On his way out of the meeting, Brahimi said the EU foreign ministers were deeply concerned about Syria.
"They agree it is one of the most dangerous crises in the world today," he said. "I came to ask them to use whatever means they have to reach a peaceful solution for this case. ... As I said before, it is either peaceful, consensual, political solution, or the situation will be similar to or even worse than Somalia."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the U.K. supported Brahimi's work, although he said more aid to the rebels might be needed to show the Assad regime what could happen in the absence of a diplomatic solution.
In February, Britain pushed successfully for changes to the embargo that would allow EU countries to provide nonlethal aid to the rebels. Hague said Tuesday that Britain was taking full advantage of the change, sending equipment such as armoured four-wheel-drive vehicles, body armour and other protective gear.
The United States and other countries have been reluctant to send weapons partly because of fears they may fall into the hands of extremists who have been gaining influence among the rebels. The Obama administration, however, announced this month that it would, for the first time, provide nonlethal aid directly to the rebels.
Ashton said the foreign ministers also discussed the EU's relationship with Russia. While trade between the EU and Russia is very important, Ashton said she hoped for greater co-operation from Russia as regards Syria.
Russia and China have continued to back Assad's regime.