European Union

Key supporter of Syrian rebels says decision to extend blanket arms embargo will only prolong war

Qatar, one of the principal supporters of the Syrian rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad, has criticised the EU’s decision to extend its blanket arms embargo on Syria and said it would only prolong the war.

Hamed bin Jassim Al Thani, prime minister and foreign minister of the Gulf state, told al-Jazeera TV that the decision was wrong and accused the Syrian government of seeking to buy time.

On Monday EU foreign ministers agreed to extend the arms embargo on Syria for a further three months, although they accepted a British proposal to allow the supply of “greater non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians”.

After further discussions they may also permit military training and advice in areas that are under rebel control, diplomats said.

“I am astonished at this decision,” Bin Jassim said. “The rebels only want to be able to defend themselves. At the present time this is the wrong decision. It will only prolong the crisis.”

Qatar, along with Saudi Arabia, has supplied money and weapons to the anti-Assad forces but is understood to have been pressured by western governments to ease up because of growing concern that weapons are being funnelled to radical or jihadi groups that are not under the influence of the western-backed Syrian National Coalition. Rebel forces have complained that weapons and ammunition are drying up.

Public discussion of this issue is rare. Last month Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former spy chief and senior Saudi royal, said the rebels should be given anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to “level the playing field” and ensure that “extremist” groups did not dominate the opposition.

On Tuesday the New York Times reported that the US may reconsider its refusal to supply weapons to the rebels. Barack Obama rebuffed the advice of his senior security officials last autumn, but with conditions in Syria continuing to deteriorate the debate could be reopened. “This is not a closed decision,” a senior administration official told the paper. “As the situation evolves, as our confidence increases, we might revisit it.”

Obama’s decision not to provide arms was driven by his reluctance to get drawn into a proxy war and by his fear that the weapons would end up in unreliable hands, where they could be used against civilians or Israeli and US interests.

The state department has provided $50m of non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, including satellite telephones, radios, broadcasting equipment, computers, survival equipment and related training. An FM radio network is to connect broadcasting operations in several Syrian cities in the next few days.

But the decision not to provide weapons has greatly limited the influence the US has with groups that are likely to control much of Syria if Assad is ousted. The new US secretary of state, John Kerry has said he plans to advance ideas on how to change the situation, including more co-operation with Russia, Syria’s closest ally on the UN security council.

In a related development, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Mualim, is to visit Moscow next week, the Russian foreign ministry announced. But there is still no agreement on a visit by Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, dashing hopes for an early start to possible talks between the Assad regime and the opposition. Russia appeared to have hoped the two visits would coincide.

Russia also said on Tuesday that a call by UN investigators for suspected war criminals in Syria to face prosecution at the international criminal court was “untimely and unconstructive”.

Europe divided over German proposals for a ‘super commissioner’ who could punish nations with large deficits

Fresh tensions emerged between Germany and southern Europe as Spain and Italy criticised Berlin’s proposals for a European Union “super commissioner” with powers to police national budgets and punish those with large deficits.

“This is an idea, that considered on its own, I personally don’t like,” said Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy after meeting his Italian counterpart Mario Monti in Madrid.Monti claimed not to have read a Der Spiegel interview in which European Central Bank (ECB) president Mario Draghi threw his weight behind the super-commissioner idea, but nevertheless recalled that, in 2003, Germany has been one of the first countries to break EU deficit rules. “It doesn’t sound very good,” he added. “Markets could take this as a sign that current instruments do not work.”

Both prime ministers claimed their recession-hit countries did not currently need a soft bailout that would allow the ECB to start buying bonds to bring down borrowing rates, though Rajoy was prepared to admit a request might come eventually. “The instrument is there and any country can ask for it if it finds it necessary. And I will do just that,” he said. “When I believe that it is in the interests of Spain to ask for it, I will ask for it,” he said.

Monti said Italy did not need the bailout, but said it was important that at least one country use the eurozone’s new soft bailout mechanism in order to prove to markets that the ECB was serious about defending the euro.

“It is of paramount importance that the instrument is put to work, that it does not remain theoretical,” Monti said, in what seemed to be a reference to Spain.

The plan relates to the ECB purchasing a government’s bonds, which results in a lowering of that country’s borrowing rates in the bond markets.

The size of Spain’s economic downturn was underscored by the prices at which a new “bad bank”, to be set up as part of a eurozone rescue of Spanish banks, will forcibly buy toxic real estate assets from bailed-out banks.

The “bad bank”, known as Sareb, will take between 45bn and 90bn of real estate with discounts on book value varying from 80% to 32%, according to the Bank of Spain.

The minimum discount will still be above the market fall in Spanish real estate prices, which have so far dropped 25% from their peak.

But Italy also appeared to be running into fresh difficulties after former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, sentenced to prison for tax fraud last week, threatened to withdraw support for Monti’s government over the weekend.

As Italy’s bond yields began to rise yesterday, Monti refused to speculate on whether this was a sign of market fear that Berlusconi would carry out his threat.

“You can ask that question to the political parties, and to the markets, but not to me,” he said, claiming his duty was merely to keep governing Italy until the spring.