The European Union has decided to lift the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition while maintaining all other sanctions against President Bashar Assad's regime after June 1, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said late Monday.
The decision "sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime," Hague said after an all-day meeting that laid bare EU hesitation on feeding arms in a foreign conflict only months after it won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Hague insisted that Britain had "no immediate plans to send arms to Syria. It gives us flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate."
No other EU member appeared to have immediate plans to send arms to the rebels. "I have not detected any readiness from anyone at this time to contemplate that particular option," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.
Britain and France — the EU's biggest military powers — had been pushing the bloc to lift its embargo on delivery of weapons into Syria to help the embattled opposition.
The 27 EU nations agreed everything possible should be done to control any exports and make sure they do not fall into the hands of extremists or terrorists.
"Member states shall require adequate safeguards against misuse of authorizations (for export) granted," the joint EU text said.
Austria had been holding back a joint decision, insisting no arms should be sent abroad.
"The EU should hold the line. We are a peace movement and not a war movement," Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said.
In the end, Austria agreed with the text which "took note" of the commitment of member states to consider at a national level sending arms to the Syrian opposition.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left the talks earlier Monday to return to Paris to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over the issue.
The EU talks had been billed as a pivotal opportunity for the bloc to overcome differences about whether to ease sanctions against Syria to allow arms shipments to the rebels. France added urgency to the debate, with Fabius pointing to increasing signs that chemical weapons were being used in the conflict.
The EU nations have been steadfast opponents of Assad in the war and have steadily increased restrictive measures against his regime, including visa restrictions and economic sanctions. In February, the bloc amended the arms embargo to allow for non-lethal equipment and medicine to protect Syrian civilians. If not renewed, all those measures expire at the end of May.
Assad's government has agreed in principle to participate in peace talks in Geneva next month. The United States and Russia hope to bring together the Syrian government and opposition for direct talks, but the exact date, agenda and participants still remains unclear.
Hague said that Monday's outcome to allow for arms shipments to the rebels "will support political progress on Syria and our attempts to bring together a Geneva conference."
Washington has also been reluctant to provide rebels with more sophisticated weapons for fear they might end up in the hands of the radical Islamic factions, including the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that has been the most effective fighting force on the opposition side.
Several EU ministers said arming the opposition would create a more level playing field that could force Assad into a negotiated settlement.