MOSCOW (NYTimes)— A senior Russian diplomat said Tuesday that the European Union’s decision to lift the arms embargo on Syria endangers the prospects for a peace conference next month backed by Washington and Moscow.
he decision, which may allow new flows of weapons to Syrian rebel forces, “is a reflection of ‘double standards’ and could inflict direct damage to the prospects for convening the international conference,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov of Russia said, according to a statement released by the Foreign Ministry.
“You cannot declare the wish to stop the bloodshed, on one hand, and continue to pump armaments into Syria, on the other hand,” Mr. Ryabkov told journalists later, according to the Interfax news service.
He rejected the notion that Russian support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria constitutes interference on behalf of one side in the conflict, saying that Russia is selling arms to “legitimate authorities.” He defended a plan to provide the Syrian government with Russian-made S-300 missile batteries, saying the new weapons would be a “stabilizing factor” that could avert a Western-led intervention.
“We consider that such steps will restrain some hotheads from the possibility of giving this conflict, or from considering a scenario that would give this conflict, an international character with the participation of external forces,” he said.
The British Foreign office said in an e-mailed statement: “We have stated that we have made no decision to supply arms to Syria. At the same time, Russia has acknowledged publicly that it is providing weapons to the Assad regime. Of course we disapprove strongly of continued arms sales to the regime. The focus now needs to move to energizing the political track, including through preparing for the ‘Geneva II Conference.’ We will be working closely with our partners and Russia to give it the best chance of making progress.”
Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart on Monday to continue to try to organize peace talks in Geneva next month. There was no immediate American reaction to the Mr. Ryabkov’s statement.
In a declaration, the European Union said member states that might wish to send weapons to Syrian rebels “shall assess the export license applications on a case-by-case basis” in line with the organization’s rules on exports of military technology and equipment.
The ministers did agree to renew all the economic sanctions already in place against the Syrian government.
Reacting to the statement from Moscow, Michael Mann, the spokesman for the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, stressed that the decision taken by foreign ministers did not mean that arms would flow immediately to the Syrian opposition.
Mr. Mann said that it was “important to note” that the declaration includes a statement that European Union nations “will not proceed at this stage with the delivery of the equipment.”
The ministers will review their position before Aug. 1 after consulting the United Nations on the progress of the American-Russian initiative and on the engagement of the Syrian parties, he said.
But efforts to ease the arms embargo, led by Britain, exposed deep rifts on Monday over the issue of arming the rebels.
Austria, the Czech Republic and Sweden came to the meeting strongly opposing arms shipments. They distrust large parts of the Syrian opposition and said they feared that the weapons would end up in the hands of jihadist groups.
They also said funneling arms to the opposition now would undermine the chances of a deal with the Assad government before the planned peace conference in Geneva.
There were also fears that Russia, which already sends arms to the Syrian government, would feel freer to send more.
France supported Britain in seeking to ease the embargo, but had called for a wider consensus.
The European ministers said it was now up to each member state to decide for itself whether to export weapons to the opposition, because the arms-export issue had been separated from the other sanctions.
In a sign of the tensions, the Austrian foreign minister, Michael Spindelegger, held an impromptu news conference late Monday warning that the end of the embargo risked creating a situation where “everybody is entitled to deliver weapons to the Assad regime or to the opposition.”
The failure to agree means that the European Union’s existing package of sanctions will lapse after Friday. But ministers emphasized that economic sanctions like asset freezes and travel bans on Syrian officials would continue.
A lapse of all the sanctions would have been a serious embarrassment for the bloc.
“I’m glad at the end of the day we were able to have a sanctions regime for all the other sanctions that were in place,” Frans Timmermans, the Dutch foreign minister, said after the meeting.
Mr. Timmermans said none of the bloc’s member nations, including his own, intended to ship arms to the Syrian rebels immediately. But he warned that lifting the arms embargo could lead Russia to step up its arms shipments to the Assad government.
“The only effect you could have — let’s be realistic about this — is that it will stimulate the Russians to provide even more arms,” he said. “But they’ve been providing so many arms that I’m sure even more will not make much of a difference.”
In a statement made before Russia’s reaction, Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister and leader of the grouping of centrist parties in the European Parliament, said Tuesday that Britain and France “should be congratulated on taking the lead.”
“The longer we leave the Syrian opposition to fend for themselves or depend on support from Qatar and other Arab countries the less influence we can exert over the outcome and the greater the risk they will turn toward extremism,” he said.
But Oxfam’s Head of Arms Control, Anna MacDonald, said she was disappointed with the bloc’s decision and the lack of European unity. “Ministers sent out mixed signals. What was needed was an unequivocal stance that the E.U. will do everything it can to stop the bloodshed and prevent a deadly arms race in Syria, which would have devastating humanitarian consequences,” she said.
Mr. Kerry and Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, met in Paris on Monday evening to try to lay the groundwork for talks that would bring together representatives of Mr. Assad’s government and the Syrian opposition. The Assad government has indicated that it is prepared to attend, but the Syrian opposition is still picking new leaders.
Mr. Kerry said additional meetings between American and Russian officials would be held to work out “how this conference can best be prepared for the possibilities of success, not failure.”
“Both of us, Russia and the United States, are deeply committed, remain committed to trying to implement the Geneva 1 principles, which require a transitional government by mutual consent that has full executive authority in order to allow the people of Syria to decide the future of Syria,” Mr. Kerry said.
The expectation is that the meeting will be held by mid-June.
Ellen Barry reported from Moscow and James Kanter from Brussels. Reporting was contributed by Stephen Castle from London; Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva; Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon; and Michael R. Gordon and Steven Erlanger from Paris.