Forceful Austrian position signals deep EU divisions on Syria ahead of this month’s embargo decision
Fighters from Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra take their positions on the front line during a clash with Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo. Photograph: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters/REUTERS
By Julian Borger, The Guardian
“Die Briten sind not amused,” is how Die Presse reported it today. “The Brits are not amused.” The Austrian foreign ministry circulated a discussion paper (known in Brussels jargon as a non-paper) among the EU member states yesterday forcefully rebutting British and French arguments for amending the European embargo on Syria to allow weapons shipments to the rebels.
Update: here is a link to an English version of the Austrian paper [click here]
The Austrian paper argues that lifting the embargo would “constitute a breach of international and EU law” and be contrary to the “principle of non-intervention and non-use of force” laid down in the UN Charter. If the weapons ended up in the hands of the al-Nusra Front, it would also violate UN Security Council resolutions on al-Qaida, given al-Nusra’s stated affiliation.
According to the Austrian press reports the UK asked the Austrians not to circulate the paper, but Vienna did it anyway – a sign of the declining clout of the UK in Brussels as the country sinks into an internecine quagmire on EU membership.
Austria has a particular reason for opposing the lifting of the arms embargo, as it has UN peacekeeping troops deployed in the line of fire on the Golan Heights, but sources in Brussels suggest the Austrians may also be expressing the views of a EU majority that has deep reservations over lifting the embargo, particularly at a time when there is at least the glimmer of diplomatic hope in the wake of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement to hold a new international conference on Syria.
This argument runs directly counter to the case put forward last month by William Hague and Laurent Fabius, for the lifting of the embargo on the rebels, in which they claimed that only such pressure could bring the regime to the negotiating table.
The present embargo is due to expire on June 1, and the final decision on what to do about will probably taken at an EU foreign ministers meeting on May 27. There are technical experts meetings this week and ambassadorial sessions on it next week.
Simply failing to agree and allowing the embargo to lapse is a result nobody really wants as it would let the regime off the hook as well, unfreezing Assad’s bank accounts for example. The most likely outcome is that the creative linguists in Brussels come up with a form of words that each member state can interpret in its own way. This is what happened when the embargo was amended in February, to allow “non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians”. Most EU members took this to mean technical assistance related to non-lethal equipment. The UK took a more liberal interpretation, relating to all forms of technical assistance, including forms of military training.
Hague told parliament in March:
Such technical assistance can include assistance, advice and training on how to maintain security in areas no longer controlled by the regime; on co-ordination between civilian and military councils; on how to protect civilians and minimise the risks to them; and on how to maintain security during a transition.
As a result, the EU pursued two policies under a single formula. That divergence is only likely to get deeper after June 1.
PressTV – Putin warns against actions fueling crisis in Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned against any measure that would further fuel the ongoing crisis in Syria and destabilize the Arab country.
Putin made the remarks on Tuesday after talks with the visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Black Sea resort of Sochi over the Syrian crisis.
“In this crucial period it is especially important to avoid any moves that can shake the situation,” Putin said without giving further details.
However, it is believed that the warning was against foreign military intervention or arming militants fighting against the Syrian government.
It was not made clear whether the two leaders reached any firm agreements on the conflict in Syria. Israel wants Russia to halt its arms supplies to the Syrian government.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Prime Minister David Cameron have already held talks with Russian president over the ongoing crisis in Syria.
The US, Britain and Israel are pushing Russia to stop an arms deal under which Moscow is obliged to sell Damascus an S-300 air defense system.
Washington and Moscow are at odds over the Syria crisis. While the US and its regional allies support anti-Damascus militants seeking to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia remains a supporter of his government.
Russia accuses the West of worsening the Syria conflict by calling for Assad’s ouster. In return, Washington accuses Moscow of not doing enough to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
Syria has been experiencing unrest since March 2011, and many people, including large numbers of Syrian troops and security personnel, have been killed in the violence.
HM / PR / SS