The European Union's policy toward Syria is to be reviewed following the unification of the Syrian opposition and step-changes in British and French policies.
Foreign ministers are to discuss Syria at their meeting in Brussels on Monday (19 November) and may even touch on the possibility of re-examining the EU's ban on the export of arms to Syria. The UK's prime minister, David Cameron, last week asked his lawyers to review the terms of the ban, which prevents the supply of lethal weapons to rebels.
The UK's review is one of a set of initiatives by the UK government, which has offered to give exile to Syria's leader Bashar Assad, and will tomorrow (16 November) host an international conference to discuss support for Assad's opponents. Cameron says he plans to press the newly re-elected US president, Barack Obama, to make Syria a greater priority.
The changes coincide with the formation of a coalition by five disparate groups and blocs of Syria's opposition. The coalition, which was formed on Sunday (11 November), is led by Moaz Khatib, a former geologist described as a religious moderate. The move has been applauded by the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and by governments in Europe, led by the UK, Germany and France.
France went one step further on Tuesday (13 November), becoming the first EU country to recognise “the Syrian national coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and as future government of a democratic Syria”.
President François Hollande also said that France could be willing to supply arms at some point. “On the question of weapons deliveries, France did not support it as long as it wasn't clear where these weapons went. With the coalition, as soon as it is a legitimate government of Syria, this question will be looked at by France,” he said.
However, a lifting of the EU's ban on weapons would require the unanimous support of other member states. The clauses of the ban do allow a waiver if “equipment is intended solely for humanitarian or protective use”.
So far, the EU's efforts in Syria have been focused on providing support for international mediation, encouraging the opposition to unite, seeking sanctions at the United Nations and imposing unilateral sanctions.
The foreign-affairs council comes as tensions increase across the region. Several Syrian shells have landed in Israel in recent days, prompting Israel to fire back. Turkey has asked the US to supply it with additional weaponry, in the form of Patriot anti-missile defences.
In a sign of its continued support for Assad, the Iranian government, which is itself under EU sanctions more severe than those imposed on Syria, said on Tuesday that next week it will host a meeting of Syrian groups under the motto “No to violence and yes to democracy”.
The Syrian Red Crescent on Tuesday suggested that as many as 2.5 million Syrians may have been uprooted by the war.
Meanwhile, economic pressure on the Syrian regime is growing. David Butter of the London-based think-tank Chatham House says that there is a very real risk that Syria's finances could implode, increasing pressure on the regime. The Economist Intelligence Unit says that inflation rose to almost 40% in August and the Syrian pound is losing value rapidly.