LONDON — Diplomatic pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad escalated Monday, as a divided European Union agreed to relax a ban on weapons shipments to anti-Assad forces and U.S. Sen. John McCain met with insurgent commanders during a surprise visit to the country.
Meanwhile, top U.S. and Russian diplomats met in Paris in a bid to solidify plans for a Syria peace conference that both nations view as the only hope for a diplomatic solution to a crisis that already has left tens of thousands of people dead and threatens to spark a regional conflagration.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, still have not set a date for the conference or revealed who would be attending the session in Geneva.
McCain, R-Ariz., a leading advocate of arming the Syrian opposition, did not comment on his dramatic entry into rebel-held territory, but a pro-opposition group that helped arrange the trip said the senator met with Gen. Salim Idriss, who heads the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, a loose confederation of rebel factions.
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McCain also met with 18 commanders from rebel battalions across Syria, according to the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which assisted in facilitating the visit. The rebels repeated previous requests for heavy weapons, a no-fly zone that would nullify the government’s air power, and, in a new twist, airstrikes on Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that has dispatched militiamen to fight on Assad’s behalf.
The rebel commanders told McCain, “They don’t need more pizza, they need weapons,” Elizabeth O’Bagy, political director for the task force, said in a phone interview from Turkey.
The Obama administration has been hesitant to arm the opposition, fearing that weapons could fall into the hands of al-Qaida-linked extremists.
Both the McCain trip and Europe’s lifting of the embargo seemed at least partially designed to heighten pressure on Assad before the upcoming Geneva peace conference. The Syrian government has made battlefield gains in recent months, strengthening its hand against an opposition alliance that remains fractured and rife with discord. It is still not clear which group would represent the opposition at the U.S.-Russian sponsored peace talks.
The United States and its allies want Assad to agree to step down and give way to a transitional government. But Assad and his chief allies, Russia and Iran, have balked at any suggestion that Assad must resign as a precondition for negotiations.
In Brussels, European foreign ministers agreed after a marathon meeting to relax their embargo on arming Syrian rebels. They also said that no weapons would be shipped before Aug. 1, at the earliest. That would mean that Assad would face the threat of accelerated arms shipments as his government contemplates prospective peace talks with the rebels during the Geneva conference.
The late-night decision followed hours of contentious discussion among the EU’s 27 member nations and was intended to send a pointed message to Assad about Western resolve against him. The delay in actually shipping any arms to rebels also reflected the divisions within the EU over how deeply it should get involved in the fight.
Britain and France, the EU’s two largest military powers, pushed strongly to end the arms ban, arguing that the time had come for more than just “nonlethal assistance” to rebels. Other countries such as Austria resisted, worried that weapons might fall into the hands of extremists.
EU foreign ministers raced to find a compromise and to present a united front, mindful that their blanket arms embargo was scheduled to expire automatically Friday night.
“It was important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. “Tonight EU nations have done just that.”
Hague acknowledged that there was no immediate plan by the EU as a whole or by individual countries, including his own, to dispatch weapons. And if arms do get shipped, the countries providing weapons would have to enact safeguards to ensure that the weapons would reach only units under the umbrella of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition and would not get intercepted or passed on to more radical groups.
The EU foreign ministers said that they would review their decision Aug. 1, which, in effect, means that no materiel would make its way to Syria from Europe before that date. Officials hope that by then there might be diplomatic breakthroughs.
Other sanctions on Assad’s regime, including economic ones, are to remain in place.
The U.N. Human Rights Council already has passed several resolutions condemning the death, rape and torture of civilians during the more than two-year conflict, which has claimed 80,000 lives.
In Syria, heavy fighting was reported Monday in the western town of Qusair, the target of a regime offensive that began May 19, and around the nearby Dabaa military base.
The battle for Qusair has exposed Hezbollah’s growing role in the Syrian conflict. The Shiite extremist group, which has been fighting alongside Assad’s troops, initially tried to play down its involvement, but could no longer do so after dozens of its fighters were killed in the area and buried in Lebanon.
On Saturday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah firmly linked his group’s fate to the survival of the Syrian regime, raising the stakes not just in Syria, but also in Hezbollah’s relations with rival groups in Lebanon.