DUBLIN The European Union was left divided over how to increase its help to the Syrian opposition on Saturday after talks between foreign ministers failed to bridge differences on whether to exempt the rebels from an EU arms embargo.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, skeptical of a French and British drive to lift the arms ban on the rebels, said it was very difficult to detect any enthusiasm among EU foreign ministers meeting in Dublin "for further arming of a conflict that is already much too armed".
After a two-year civil war that has killed 70,000 people, Paris and London say they want to raise pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and try to force him to the negotiating table by allowing the supply of arms to the rebels.
EU countries such as Germany, Austria and Sweden oppose the move, fearing it could lead to weapons falling into the hands of Islamist militants, fuel regional conflict and encourage Assad's backers, Iran and Russia, to step up arms supplies to him.
Diplomats said France and Britain garnered little support at the two-day EU foreign ministers' meeting that ended on Saturday, but discussions on how or whether to amend EU sanctions on Syria will continue among diplomats in Brussels over the next two months.
Changing the arms ban, which must be renewed or amended by June 1, needs backing from all 27 EU states. Britain and France have said they could act alone if they do not get their way.
In an apparent warning to Britain and France not to break with the rest of the EU, Bildt, an international mediator in the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, said international divisions could prolong the Syrian war as it did the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
"Were you to have the different actors going off in different directions ... then we'd get a prolongation of the Syrian conflict as well," Bildt said.
Britain and France did find support from former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt who accused the foreign ministers of wasting an opportunity to stop Assad's "killing machine".
"Britain and France have shown courage and leadership in their call to give the (rebel) Free Syrian Army a fighting chance in the Syria conflict. While the EU talk shop continues, people are being slaughtered by the thousands...," Verhofstadt, Liberal leader in the European Parliament, said in a statement.
Despite the threat by London and Paris to go their own way, EU diplomats think they will seek an EU-wide consensus because failure to agree would lead to the collapse of all EU sanctions against Syria, including asset freezes and travel bans.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French counterpart Laurent Fabius signaled in a letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that there could be room for a compromise, saying that they would accept "some very serious amendment" of the EU arms embargo, short of its full lifting.
That could allow them to broaden the scope of the equipment they can send the opposition, now limited to non-lethal aid.
Ashton played down divisions within the bloc over Syria, saying it was united on the need for a political solution.
Describing the situation in Syria and the region as "extraordinarily fragile", Ashton said the EU was looking at how to increase assistance to the "moderate Syrian opposition", particularly through political and economic support.
Some opponents of lifting the arms embargo, such as Germany and Austria, favor easing economic sanctions on rebel-held areas of Syria to try to strengthen the opposition.
One option would be to ease a ban on EU oil imports from Syria to permit opposition groups to sell oil to Europe.
Supporters of this idea believe such a step could raise the credibility of the opposition Syrian National Coalition as an alternative to the Assad government.
(Editing by Stephen Powell)