BRUSSELS (AP) — Austria's foreign minister said Monday that the European Union's top diplomats have failed to agree about how to deal with Syria's civil war, and EU sanctions against Bashar Assad's regime are likely to expire on June 1.
However, three other European diplomats insisted the 27-member bloc still had a chance to come to an agreement. One said Monday's talks in Brussels were "far from over." The three spoke on condition of anonymity as the proceedings continued.
During a break from critical EU talks aimed to work out a common position on Syria, Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told reporters he was concerned about what he called a failure to reach a common position and said that after the EU sanctions collapse "everybody is entitled to deliver weapons to the Assad regime or to the opposition."
But he said he also was holding out hope for a last-minute reversal that could salvage an accord in the talks set to continue deep into the evening.
Speaking at an impromptu news conference, Spindelegger said that during the talks France and Britain had agreed not to deliver any weapons until Aug. 1. Those two countries — the EU's biggest military powers — have been pushing the bloc to lift its embargo on delivery of weapons into Syria to help the embattled opposition.
British and French diplomats did not immediately return calls seeking comment after Spindelegger's remarks.
British Foreign Minister William Hague left the EU offices for the dinnertime break, saying only that he would return later.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left the talks earlier Monday to return to Paris to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over the issue.
The talks had been billed as a pivotal opportunity for the bloc to overcome differences about whether to ease sanctions against Syria to allow arms shipments to the rebels. Earlier, France added urgency to the debate, with Fabius pointing to increasing signs that chemical weapons were being used in the conflict.
Austria has been among the most outspoken opponents of such deliveries, arguing that pouring more weapons into the war zone will only increase the deaths in Syria and tarnish the EU's reputation as a peace broker.
The EU nations have been steadfast opponents of Assad in the war and have steadily increased restrictive measures against his regime, including visa restrictions and economic sanctions. In February, the 27-nation bloc also amended the arms embargo to allow for non-lethal equipment and medicine to protect Syrian civilians. If not renewed, all those measures expire at the end of May.
Meanwhile, Assad's government has agreed in principle to participate in peace talks in Geneva next month. The United States and Russia hope to bring together the Syrian government and opposition for direct talks, but the exact date, agenda and participants still remains unclear.
Washington has also been reluctant to provide rebels with more sophisticated weapons for fear they might end up in the hands of the radical Islamic factions, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that has been the most effective fighting force on the opposition side.
Several EU ministers said arming the opposition would create a more-level playing field that could force Assad into a negotiated settlement.