Europe Conflicted on Whether to Arm Syrian Insurgents

A member of the Free Syrian Army takes a position as he points his weapon in a mosque in AleppoBRUSSELS — A push by France and Britain to end a weapons embargo on Syria to allow the arming of rebels there ran into heavy resistance on Friday from other European countries, which worry that such a step will only escalate the Syrian conflict and stoke instability elsewhere in the Middle East.

At a European Union summit meeting here in Brussels, a number of European leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and the bloc’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, expressed doubt about the wisdom of lifting the arms embargo. The division highlighted the difficulties Europe has in speaking with a single voice on international issues, particularly those that risk entangling Europe in foreign military conflicts.

France and Britain, former imperial powers with a long tradition of intervening overseas, take a far more activist approach to foreign affairs than other European nations, particularly Germany and Austria, which have sought for decades to shed any hints of militarism left over from World War II.

“We have a number of reservations regarding arms exports even to the opposition because one has to ask oneself whether that won’t just fan the flames of conflict,” Ms. Merkel told a news conference at the end of the two-day summit. She said European foreign ministers would discuss the matter further, starting next week at a meeting in Ireland, in an effort to find a common position.

President François Hollande of France, who led a Franco-British push in Brussels to allow arms deliveries to opponents of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, stressed that Paris would keep up the pressure for a change of policy by the 27-nation European Union, telling reporters that “many around the table were convinced but not all.” Diplomats, however, said there was scant support for a lifting of the embargo outside London and Paris.

France, which in January sent troops to Mali, a former French colony, to push back an offensive by Islamist rebels, has grown increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of European decision-making on foreign affairs. The European Union expressed support for France’s Mali intervention but, months later, has been struggling to put together a training mission it promised for the Malian armed forces.

Mr. Hollande said he drew hope of a shift in the union’s policy on Syria from the fact that the bloc’s position had already “evolved” from an initial stand of not getting involved beyond providing humanitarian assistance. In February, European Union foreign ministers agreed to extend an arms embargo for a further three months but agreed to allow nonlethal but quasi-military aid like flak jackets and armored vehicles, something that Germany and others had previously opposed.

Ms. Merkel on Friday left open the possibility of a further shift, saying that she had “not as yet come to a definitive position” on the question of arms supplies. She added that “nonlethal support was not something we wanted to…

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