BRUSSELS, March 15 (UPI) —
EU members appeared split Friday on two keys issues facing the union — how to bail out crisis-ridden Cyprus and how best to deal with an Anglo-French move to start arming Syrian rebels arrayed against President Bashar Assad despite opposition from Germany and other member countries.
Cyprus wants cash to save its economy from meltdown, which threatens the Mediterranean island as a long-delayed fallout from the Greek economic crisis. EU ministers are set to offer Cyprus much less than it asked for and are poised to impose conditions that will affect depositors and introduce a potentially unpopular taxation regime.
Doubts were expressed Friday about the European Union’s ability or willingness to offer Cyprus a $22 billion package as discussed.
The Cyprus crisis coincides with the European Union having to deal with the biggest challenge yet to its effort to play an influential role in containing the conflict in Syria without getting overtly militarily involved.
Britain and France want the European Union to start arming the Syrian opposition, in a replay of the Libyan operation under NATO umbrella that brought down Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in October 2011.
The Anglo-French initiative came under intense and bitter debate and revealed fault lines in the European Union’s current policy on Syria. Germany argues open military support will prompt Russia, China and Iran to match European supplies which in turn would widen the conflict.
NATO forces are already in Turkey manning missiles aimed at Syria, said to be a deterrent against Assad attacking Turkey, and Syrian rebels have been receiving weapons from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and other pro-Western Arab states.
Opposition to open European arms supplies to the rebels is rooted in fears a heavier arms flow would be met by Assad and his allies with a matching build-up, with no guarantee that a greater arms flow will contain the violence.
Critics of the Anglo-French proposal accused the two powers of seeking regime change in Damascus by stealth and challenged their argument that more arms would stem the humanitarian crisis.
At least 70,000 people have been killed and a million displaced persons are sheltering in temporary camps in Turkey, Lebanon and other neighboring countries since the uprising against Assad began 15 March 2011.
The European Union imposed an arms embargo in April 2011 but critics say "leakage" of the curbs on arms reaching rebels has been widespread.
Critics of an EU arms bridge to Syria also cite uncertainty over the outcome of previous military projects ongoing with direct or indirect EU support, the post-Gadhafi transition in Libya and the French-led war on Islamist militants in West Africa.
Critics queried the European Union’s ability to commit unpredictable levels of cash resources to yet another military project that has competing forces of Russia, Iran and other states seemingly determined to prop up Assad. U.S. officials have said Belarus may be aiding Assad as well.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated she remained unconvinced by British and French arguments in favor of lifting European curbs on arms supplies to the rebels.
"The fact that two (countries) have changed their position is not enough for 25 others to follow suit," Merkel said of the divisions within the 27-nation European Union.
EU foreign ministers are to meet March 22 in Dublin to review the embargo.
Analysts said the lifting, or not, of the embargo is symbolic to a point, because the rebels are receiving weapons from Europe, thinly disguised as military aid from their Arab friends Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Turkey.