Britain has given a “clear signal” that the West is ready to arm Syrian rebels within months, after winning a diplomatic battle to ensure that a European Union ban on arming opposition fighters is reviewed early next year.
The decision, taken by ambassadors to the EU, is intended as a strong message to Bashar al-Assad’s regime that European governments are increasingly willing to offer military support to rebels.
A package of EU economic and military sanctions due to expire on Dec 1 had been expected to roll over for another 12 months.
But a one-year renewal would have created a major legal obstacle for arming the rebels or stepping up Western intervention in Syria, so earlier this week Britain tabled a proposal that sanctions, including the arms ban, should only be renewed for three months.
With French support, Britain overcame strident opposition from Sweden, the Czech Republic and Belgium, who had passive German support, for what could well prove to be a vital shift in Western policy on Syria.
The decision will create the ability to supply weapons to rebel forces soon after March 1, two years after the outbreak of protests that led a civil war and an estimated 40,000 deaths.
“This sends a strong message to the regime that all options remain on the table and make clear the need for real change,” a British government spokesman said. “The regime’s indiscriminate use of violence against their people will not be ignored.”
A Foreign Office official added however, that the move “did not pre-judge decisions that will be taken in three months”.
“We must build sensible contingency into our policy – to retain the flexibility to change our position and make sure that we can regularly review our policy in light of developments,” he said.
“The situation is dire, it’s getting worse, and we need to send a clear signal that there needs to be real change.”
Despite 19 rounds of EU sanctions, and tough unilateral sanctions imposed by Washington, the Assad regime has survived longer than the expectations of most Western leaders.
The West has so far limited itself to “non-lethal” aid to the opposition, supplying in communications equipment, political advice and training on the reporting of human rights abuses.
Britain and its allies have refrained from supplying weapons out of fear of becoming embroiled in another overseas military conflict after Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
There have also been doubts about the wisdom of aiding poorly structured and weakly commanded rebel groups, and concerns that anti-Assad militias sympathetic to al-Qaeda could lay their hands on Western-supplied munitions, storing up trouble for the post-Assad era.
The rebels, mostly under the flag of the Free Syrian Army, have only received relatively limited supplies of cash and weapons from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In an effort to galvanise the opposition, Britain, France and others have recently recognised the Syrian National Coalition, a civilian grouping with stronger roots on the ground than its predecessor, as the sole representative of the Syrian people.
With an estimated 1,000 people dying every week, a growing refugee crisis on the borders of Turkey and Jordan and fighting spreading across the country, arming the rebels would be a logical if hazardous next step towards toppling the regime.
Such aid would perhaps only even up the equation. Mr Assad has, from early on in the conflict, received ample supplies of money and military advisers from Iran, while Russia is reportedly printing money to help Damascus pay its soldiers and civil servants.
Keen to cling on to its only significant ally in the Levant, Moscow has also offered valuable diplomatic over at the UN Security Council.
The core of the Syrian army has remained loyal, as have senior officials who belong to Mr Assad’s Alawite sect.