European Union foreign ministers Monday failed to arrive at an agreement on whether to allow member countries to send lethal arms to the Syrian rebels.
Britain and France had pushed for the ban on supplying the opposition forces fighting Bashar al Assad’s regime to be lifted and the failure of ministers to agree an extension to the embargo during 12 hours of talks means it will now end on June 1.
William Hague said after the meeting on Monday the decision “sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime”.
Sky’s Foreign Affairs Editor Tim Marshall said the decision would make little difference in the short term.
“Already there are many sides arming the two sides that are fighting. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are pouring arms into the opposition,” he said.
“What it means though, firstly, is that the idea of the united European foreign policy has bitten the dust.
“I suspect at some point, the British and the French will go ahead and try to arm some of the many, many groups there are in opposition in Syria.”
Diplomats said there had been an agreement that EU governments would refrain from sending arms to Syria for now.
Financial and economic sanctions against the Assad government were extended for another year at the meeting.
Several of the 27 EU nations were reticent about more weapons being sent into a conflict zone that has already seen the deaths of nearly 100,000 people.
“Quite a lot of arms are already going to the wrong hands,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans.
“The parties to the conflict don’t have a shortage of arms, frankly.”
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said he regretted that it had not been possible to find a compromise with Britain and France.
“The EU should hold the line. We are a peace movement and not a war movement,” he said.
In a statement, Mr Hague acknowledged “it was a difficult decision for some countries”.
“It was important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so. Tonight EU nations have done just that,” he said.
“The other elements of EU sanctions on the Assad regime will be retained.
“EU nations also agreed a common framework for those member states who, in the future, may decide to supply military equipment to the Syrian National Coalition.
“These agreed safeguards would ensure that any such equipment would only be supplied to the National Coalition, for the protection of civilians.”
The EU decision came as former US presidential candidate Senator John McCain, who supports arming the rebels, made a surprise visit to Syria.