Rejecting a push by Britain, European governments on Monday decided against providing weapons to Syrian rebel forces, expressing fears that more arms would lead only to more bloodshed in a conflict that has already taken nearly 70,000 lives.
The decision, by European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, illustrates the difficulty that Europe and the United States have had in dealing with the two-year-old Syrian civil war, despite their unanimous condemnation of President Bashar al-Assad and his ruthless battle to remain in power.
The Obama administration, while calling on Assad to step down, also has refused repeated rebel appeals for more advanced weaponry, particularly ground-to-air missiles to confront Assad’s fighter jets and helicopter gunships. U.S. and European leaders have cited fears that the weapons could end up in the hands of Islamist extremists, who form an important and growing segment of rebel military forces.
A report issued Monday in Geneva by the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said the Islamist fighters include foreigners — from Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt — drawn to the conflict because they consider it a Sunni jihad against Assad’s government, which, although secular, is dominated by Alawites, a branch of Shiism.
The number of such foreigners is a small proportion of the uprising, according to news agency accounts of the report, but they are considered particularly important because of their experience with irregular warfare and homemade bombs. Nevertheless, the commission urged rebel leaders in the umbrella National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces to dissociate themselves from the Islamic groups, a move it said would make it easier for Europe, the United States and others to provide aid.
“The war has become colored by sectarianism, permeated by opportunistic criminality and aggravated by the presence of foreign fighters and extremist groups,” the commission added.
Assad’s regime has been receiving help from Shiites in Lebanon, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Iraq. On Monday, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station reported on its Web site that leaders of the Lebanese movement attended the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter who had died “performing his jihadist duties,” believed to be an oblique reference to the fighting in Syria.
The report came a day after the Free Syrian Army said it had repelled a Hezbollah offensive aimed at capturing villages on the outskirts of the town of Qusair, in the central province of Homs. Activists there said at least two Hezbollah fighters were killed, and fighters posted a video purportedly showing rebels firing rockets and machine guns to repel the advancing fighters in the fields surrounding the town.
Though Hezbollah has carried out a number of raids from Lebanese territory, this was the biggest and most overt operation yet, said Louay al-Moqdad, the Free Syrian Army’s political and media coordinator.
“Hezbollah yesterday joined the battle with a clear face,” he said in a telephone interview from northern Syria.
Hezbollah has denied that it is formally dispatching members of its militia to help Assad, though its leaders have acknowledged that some of its supporters living in the porous border region have participated in the fighting.
The allegations coincide with an intensified rebel offensive to capture the last government outposts in and around the strategic northern city of Aleppo, where fighting continued Monday.
The European Union imposed an arms embargo against Syria in May 2011, covering the government as well as the rebels, but it was scheduled to expire March 1. Monday’s decision renewed the ban for three more months, but, in what was portrayed as a compromise, it contained a promise to alter the terms to permit the supply of more nonlethal equipment designed to save civilian lives.
The ministers did not spell out what that means in practical terms. Britain and other European governments already have supplied nonlethal aid such as communications gear. According to diplomats in Brussels and in London, the British government had proposed renewing the embargo against the government but not the rebels, opening the way for delivery of lethal military equipment, but most other E.U. governments opposed this idea.
“The U.K. believes international action so far has fallen short,” the British Foreign Ministry said in a statement in London. “In the absence of a diplomatic breakthrough, it is right that we continue to consider all options to protect civilians and to assist the National Coalition and other opposition groups opposed to extremism.”
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. and Arab League special envoy, has been seeking to arrange negotiations between Assad’s government and the rebel coalition, most recently at the U.N. headquarters in New York. Rebel coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib has agreed in principle but refuses to talk with Assad or his security services.
France also has been a champion of the Syrian rebel coalition, offering it early diplomatic recognition and until recently urging a modification of the E.U. arms embargo similar to what Britain proposed. But French President Francois Hollande said recently that sending arms to the rebels now would be an unwelcome signal while Brahimi’s efforts for a diplomatic solution are underway.
Hollande’s government also has fresh experience with the unintended consequences of Western help to the rebels who overthrew Moammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. French soldiers dispatched to Mali last month have been fighting Islamist extremists equipped largely with arms plundered from Libyan arsenals after Gaddafi fell.