LONDON (AP) — Russia’s foreign minister warned Thursday that arming Syria’s rebels would be a breach of international law, hitting back at recent suggestions for a European Union arms embargo to be lifted.
Moscow has been the main ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, shielding him from the UN sanctions over the two-year conflict, which started as an uprising and became a full-blown civil war, claiming the lives of more than 70,000 people.
With the conflict deadlocked, Britain last month successfully pushed for changes to an arms embargo to allow EU member states to provide nonlethal aid — such as armored vehicles — to rebels. The US also said it would for the first time provide non-lethal aid to the rebels.
Britain and France have signaled their support for lifting the embargo further to allow weapons into Syria, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted Wednesday that dialogue is the only way forward and signaled his government would vehemently oppose any move to arm the Syrian opposition.
“International law does not permit the supply of arms to non-governmental actors,” Lavrov told a joint news conference in London with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
But Hague stressed that Britain wasn’t ruling out any possibilities with regard to Syria, saying the situation in the country was “catastrophic” and could get worse.
“Anything we do will be legal and clearly stated to our country and to the international community,” Hague said.
His remarks come a day after Prime Minister David Cameron hinted the UK might withhold approval for an extension of the arms embargo when it is due to expire in May. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius earlier this week said the EU will soon have to consider allowing weapons to be funneled to the outgunned Syrian rebels.
But diplomats from some EU countries have said they believe more guns is the last thing Syria needs. The different viewpoints raise the prospect that some countries might go it alone when the current EU embargo expires in May.
Cameron alluded to that possibility on Tuesday in remarks to a parliamentary committee. When asked about his position on the embargo, Cameron said he hopes “we can persuade our European partners (and) if and when a further change becomes necessary, they will agree with us.
“But if we can’t, then it’s not out of the question we might have to do things in our own way. It’s possible,” he said.
Still, officials cautioned that Cameron’s words reflected a willingness to keep “all options on the table” — not a warning.
Getting changes to the arms embargo in February was a start, and time will tell what effect those changes have on the ground and if they help protect civilian lives, an official said of anonymity in keeping with government policy.
“We’ve been gradually hardening our stance,” the official said. “The situation is clearly getting worse not better and the political diplomacy track — hard as we are working it — isn’t having the pressure on Assad at the moment to engage with that.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.