Foreign Secretary William Hague warns that extremism in Syria could flourish if the European Union refuses to ease an arms embargo preventing the supply of weapons to rebels opposed to Bashar Assad.
Mr Hague said the EU should be prepared to amend its arms embargo on Syria so that members could supply some rebel groups with weapons, adding that if that were not possible each country should be allowed to have its own sanctions policy.
Speaking in Brussels ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers, where he will attempt to persuade his counterparts of the need to lift restrictions on the supply of weapons, Mr Hague said the current state of affairs could not be allowed to continue.
The EU embargo expires at the end of the month and Mr Hague indicated that each country would be able to adopt its own approach if no common position could be established to replace the current sanctions regime.
The UK and France have led calls for the embargo to be relaxed, but Mr Hague acknowledged their position did not have universal support within Europe. He again insisted that amending the embargo would force Assad’s regime to take peace talks seriously.
“There is a difference over what it’s appropriate now for the EU to do,” he said. “In our view it’s important to show that we are prepared to amend our arms embargo so that the Assad regime gets a clear signal that it has to negotiate seriously.
That is creating extremism, it is radicalising people. We are reaching the limit of how long we can go on with that situation – William Hague
“Therefore for us amending the embargo is part of supporting the diplomatic work to bring about the political solution.
“We also have to think about what is happening to people in Syria, how long can we go on with people having every weapon that’s ever been devised dropped on them while most of the world denies them the means to defend themselves.
“That is creating extremism, it is radicalising people. We are reaching the limit of how long we can go on with that situation.”
Mr Hague said that it was preferable for an EU policy to be able to continue, but added: “We are prepared for every eventuality.”
Reza Afshar, the head of the Foreign Office’s Syria team, wrote on Twitter that the EU faced a “strategic decision”: “Give hope to political track on #Syria by amending arms embargo; or kill off political track.”
But Anna Macdonald, head of arms control at Oxfam, warned that supplying weapons would mean “adding fuel to the fire” in Syria.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are concerned that supplying arms to the opposition won’t level the playing field, in fact it will fuel a deadly arms race that will have even worse consequences for civilians.
“The millions of people suffering in Syria right now don’t need more arms, they need aid.”
She added: “Providing more arms in times of conflict is simply adding fuel to the fire, it’s fanning the flames of conflict and making the situation much worse.”
The peace process must be “exhausted” before any other solutions were considered, she added.
The EU meeting comes as the Syria conflict showed further signs of spreading to other parts of the region.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pledged his Shi’ite Muslim guerrilla group would fight in Syria until victory for President Bashar al-Assad and two rockets were fired into a Shi’ite district of southern Beirut, Lebanon.
The United Nations says at least 80,000 people have been killed in the two year civil war in Syria.