LONDON (Reuters) - The European Union was right not to arm anti-government fighters in Syria as doing so would risk regional “conflagration”, Germany said on Thursday, highlighting divisions in the region over how to handle the Syrian crisis.
“The decision of the EU not to lift in total the embargo was wise and was right. But it is necessary to show more flexibility and to understand that we have of course to support the ... opposition in a responsible way,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters at a briefing in London.
“We have to avoid a conflagration in the whole region,” he added.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Sunday Britain did not rule out in future arming rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On Wednesday, Hague went further, announcing that Britain would send the rebels armored vehicles and saying that the EU should be ready to take further steps if no political solution to the conflict is found.
An EU embargo prevents weapons being supplied to Syria’s rebels, but sanctions have been amended in recent weeks to allow more non-lethal equipment, such as body armor.
Hague added that Britain was ready to take “any domestic measures” if further amendments to EU sanctions could not be agreed.
On the same day, rebel fighters announced they had captured 21 U.N. peacekeepers near the Golan Heights in southern Syria near Israeli-held territory. Israel warned that it would not “stand idle” if violence spread to areas it controls.
Westerwelle condemned the capture of the U.N. peacekeepers.
“This is really important news ... which shows us also that the possibility of a conflagration is unfortunately realistic and we have to prevent that one country after the other is set on fire in the name of Syria,” he said.
The EU arms embargo rolls over every three months, and Syrian opposition officials have repeatedly called for it to be lifted. On Wednesday one official said any weapons sent would be accounted for and possibly returned.
However, doubts over the cohesion of the Syrian opposition, its ability to control anti-Assad forces on the ground and concerns about the rising number of Islamists in their ranks have made Western powers wary of providing military aid.
The Croatian government has denied media reports in recent weeks that Croatian arms were being sent to Syrian rebels.
More than 70,000 people have been killed and 1 million refugees have fled the conflict, which started as pro-democracy protests but has turned into a sectarian war between rebels mainly from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority and state forces defending Assad, who follows the Alawite faith derived from Shi‘ite Islam.
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall