By Justyna Pawlak and Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Britain and France are free to supply weapons to Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad from August, after attempts to renew an EU arms embargo on Syria failed on Monday.
After a marathon negotiating session in Brussels, EU governments failed to bridge their differences and let a ban on arming the opposition expire, with France and Britain scoring a victory at the expense of EU unity.
Britain and France have made a commitment not to deliver arms to the Syrian opposition "at this stage," an EU declaration said. But EU officials said the commitment effectively expires on August 1.
The refusal of London and Paris to go along with the arms embargo could have caused the collapse of all EU sanctions against Syria, embarrassing the EU and handing a victory to Assad. EU ministers managed to avert that by agreeing to reinstate all of the restrictions except for the arms embargo on the rebels.
EU sanctions on Syria that will remain in place include asset freezes and travel bans on Assad and senior Syrian officials, as well as curbs on trade, infrastructure projects and the transport sector.
London and Paris have argued for months that Europe must send a strong signal of support for rebels fighting Assad by allowing EU arms deliveries, even though they say they have not decided yet to actually supply arms.
But they ran into strong opposition from other EU governments, led by Austria and Sweden, which argued that sending more weapons to the region would increase violence and spread instability.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the EU meeting had effectively ended the EU's arms embargo on the Syrian opposition.
"While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate," Hague told reporters.
SWAYING THE CONFLICT
London and Paris were seeking to increase the opposition's leverage in planned U.S. and Russian co-sponsored peace talks expected next month by raising the prospect they could supply arms to the rebels if the political process made no headway.
The debate has gained urgency because of military gains by Assad's troops and allegations of chemical weapons use.
French newspaper Le Monde published first-hand accounts on Monday of Syrian forces loyal to Assad having repeatedly used chemical weapons against rebel fighters in Damascus.
But while a number of member states softened their opposition to amending the EU arms embargo and said they could back a compromise, Britain was unyielding in the talks, diplomats said.
"The British didn't give an inch," one diplomat said.
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said he regretted it had not been possible to find a compromise with Britain and France.
Spindelegger said the Austrian government would now discuss what to do about its 380 soldiers patrolling the U.N. ceasefire line on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. Vienna has said in the past it might have to pull them out if the arms embargo was eased.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, sought to repair any damage to the bloc's image, saying Monday's decision did not mean the EU has lost the capacity to "have a common policy."
"What it does mean is there is a recognition that in trying to establish how best to support the people of Syria, countries will want to make some decisions (on their own)," she told reporters.
Even if Britain and France decide to supply arms to the rebels, they will have to authorize any shipments on a case-by-case basis and follow safeguards to ensure no equipment lands in the wrong hands.
(Additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach, Claire Davenport, Rex Merrifield in Brussels, Yesim Dikmen in Istanbul; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Bill Trott)
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