“The European Union took steps on Monday to provide direct aid potentially including security advice to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but stopped short of lifting an arms embargo on the country.
The decision, taken at an EU foreign ministers’ meeting, was a compromise after weeks of clashes between Britain, which pushed for easing the embargo to help rebels, and EU countries worried allowing more weapons into Syria could fuel violence.
Details of what will be allowed in practice must still be determined, but diplomats said governments could offer advice on bolstering security or holding back Assad’s forces, for example.
Several scenarios were under consideration during Monday’s discussions, EU officials said, including a full lifting of the arms ban to allow shipments to opposition groups.
“EU foreign ministers on Monday decided against lifting a ban on shipping weapons to the Syrian opposition.
Britain has been leading the charge to ease the arms embargo on anti-Assad fighters, but fellow EU members were worried the shipments could fall into the wrong hands.
Instead, existing sanctions against Syria were renewed.
“Today we also agreed to extend the sanctions against Syria for a further three months,” said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
“We are amending them so as to enable greater non lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians.”
The issue of arming the Syrian opposition will be discussed again at the end of that three-month period.
UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had been set to attend the meeting, but he pulled out as his efforts to broker an end to the conflict intensify.
“European Union foreign ministers have 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 on Monday. “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 al-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.