Miguel Medina / AFP - Getty Images, file
A rebel fighter from the Al-Ezz bin Abdul Salam Brigade takes part in a training exercise at an undisclosed location near Jabal Turkmen in Syria on April 24.
BRUSSELS -- Britain and France are free to supply weapons to Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar 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 Aug. 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.
A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.
However, 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.
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.
People resisting the army of President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.
The debate has gained urgency because of military gains by Assad's troops and allegations of chemical weapons use.
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.
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 had 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.
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