By Luke Baker
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Britain and France claimed victory on Tuesday with an EU decision to let them supply arms to Syrian rebels but it brings many risks and was cast by other diplomats and regional experts as a "miscalculation".
Shortly after midnight, after more than 12 hours of negotiation, the EU's 27 member states failed to agree on how to renew their Syrian arms embargo. That means the restrictions expire as of June 1, allowing EU states to export arms if they want, although only Britain and France are inclined to do so.
It is the most fundamental internal disagreement over foreign policy the European Union has had since the Iraq war 10 years ago and casts doubt on efforts to carve out a common stance that would help bind its members more closely together.
But more immediately, it has raised questions about what impact Britain and France - the EU's leading military powers - can expect to have on the ground in Syria, what it means for a negotiated peace and whether it begins a slippery slope towards far deeper involvement in the world's most combustible region.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague described Tuesday's outcome as "the right decision", even though the overwhelming majority of EU nations, led by Austria, opposed not only the lifting of the arms embargo but also any notable easing of it.
A French official highlighted the confrontational tone, saying Vienna would not be allowed to "dictate Europe's foreign policy". By holding to their position, Paris and London made any consensus impossible, forcing the embargo's collapse.
Diplomats and EU officials were surprised by how unbending the two proved to be, describing the mood in the negotiating room as downcast and the result as a "bad day for Europe".
Italy's foreign minister, Emma Bonino, called the outcome "inglorious" and laid the blame in part on EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The Briton, whose role is to represent a common diplomatic approach by the Union, had offered states many options but no one proposal they could back, Bonino said.
Some analysts described a far wider fallout, worrying that the decision will scupper what little chance there was of success at U.S.- and Russian-sponsored peace talks in Geneva next month, and will invigorate the flow of arms to President Bashar al-Assad from his Russian and Iranian allies.
"I would call it a serious miscalculation," Daniel Levy, the head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, said of the Franco-British push that dismantled the EU arms embargo.
"The risk is that escalation begets escalation," he said, setting out the likelihood that Russia will ramp up its own arms supplies to Assad with weapons that come with far less oversight or restriction than any arms the EU may supply to the rebels.
"There's a strong chance that things will be made worse, and then there's the risk of mission creep, especially when the Syrian opposition are very clear that that's what they're after, that they want more Western skin in the game."
France and Britain say they have taken no decisions yet on supplying arms, saying they first want to see what comes of the Geneva talks. But they also emphasized on Tuesday that they now have legal authority to send weapons to Assad's opponents if they want, which they hope will pressure him to negotiate.
"Our focus in the coming weeks is the Geneva conference," said Hague. "What this is doing is sending that signal loud and clear to the regime and ... being very clear about the flexibility that we have if it refuses to negotiate."
Yet some analysts see that calculus as faulty. If the EU had decided to extend its arms embargo ahead of the Geneva talks, it might have called upon Russia to follow suit, de-escalating an arms race inside Syria and giving more scope for negotiation.
Instead, the opposite is happening, with weapons now set to bolster either side on the battlefield while the political track faces many obstacles. Russia's foreign minister accused the EU of undermining the Geneva peace efforts.
Coming in a week that has seen Moscow supply more missiles to Damascus and a declaration by Lebanon's Hezbollah militia that it stands with Assad, the EU dropping its arms embargo has ended up looking much more warlike than pacific.
"The EU decision to allow members their own discretion - within limits - of arming the Syrian rebels is the third shoe to drop in a week that will be considered the full internationalization of the Syrian war," said George Lopez, a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame.
There may be further pitfalls for Britain and France, too. If the Geneva talks fail - and many diplomats fear they will - then the two allies, who worked closely together to help Libya's rebels, will have little choice but to show they can follow through on commitments in Syria too. The rebels will expect it.
London and Paris say they would supply arms to "moderate" factions only, which means careful monitoring on the ground by European observers. The last thing Prime Minister David Cameron or President Francois Hollande want are headlines revealing that British arms have ended up in the hands of al Qaeda.
They also face strict limits on the type of weaponry they can send since longstanding EU law proscribes the export of any equipment, whoever the recipient, that would "provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions".
Bound by those rules, there is little chance Britain or France could match the arms Russia or Iran might supply. That is one reason why Israel, still in a cold war with Damascus but also wary of the rebels, opposes weapons being sent to either.
"At the end of the day, Britain and France are playing bluff in a game of poker," said Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "But they've got a transparent hand."
(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Francesco Guarascio and Adrian Croft in Brussels, John Irish in Paris and Andrew Osborn in London; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)