European Foreign Ministers Reject Arming Syrian Rebels

Carl Bildt and William Hague, the foreign ministers of Sweden and the United Kingdom, talk with the European Union's foreign policy chief Baroness Catherine Ashton in Brussels, December 13, 2010

Carl Bildt and William Hague, the foreign ministers of Sweden and the United Kingdom, talk with the European Union’s foreign policy chief Baroness Catherine Ashton in Brussels, December 13, 2010 (The Council of the European Union)

European Union foreign ministers agreed on Monday to keep sanctions against Syria in place for another three months, including an arms embargo that prevents them from arming the opposition in the country to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

A European official told the Associated Press anonymously that the United Kingdom had urged a change in the sanctions regime to allow weapons to be supplied to the rebels. Ahead of their meeting in Brussels, however, several European foreign ministers said that shipping more arms into Syria would be a mistake.

Besides the arms embargo, the European Union prohibits the import of Syrian oil and has enacted financial sanctions against various individuals and companies with ties to Assad’s regime.

Western powers have been reluctant to intervene in the civil war that has raged in Syria for nearly two years for fear of emboldening Sunni Islamists who comprise the backbone of the rebellion.

Sunni Muslims are the majority ethnic group in Syria but are governed by Shia Alawites who live mainly in the northwest of the country. Insurgents control several towns in the north as well as the oil rich eastern part of the country around the city of Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates River. Fighting has also been reported in the suburbs of the capital Damascus.

The more radical Islamist elements in the uprising have refused to submit to the National Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces that was set up late last year in Qatar in an attempt to unify Assad’s opponents and garner more international support.

Moderate elements in the rebel movement as well as their foreign backers worry that it will be hijacked by religious fanatics who seek to establish a Sunni Muslim regime in Assad’s place.

The United States and their allies in the region, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have nevertheless provided Syria’s rebels with communications equipment and weapons but The New York Times reported in October that most of the latter ended up in the hands of the very jihadists that the West abhors.