UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said the “right decision” had been reached after European Union foreign ministers agreed to end the embargo on supplying arms to opposition forces in Syria.
Mr Hague, who had led efforts for the restrictions on weapons to be relaxed, said “no immediate decision” would be made on sending arms to rebels fighting Bashar Assad’s regime.
Following a marathon meeting in Brussels, Mr Hague wrote on Twitter: “Right EU decision tonight. Arms embargo on Syrian opposition ended. No immediate decision to send arms. Other sanctions remain.”
Right EU decision tonight. Arms embargo on Syrian opposition ended. No immediate decision to send arms. Other sanctions remain— William Hague (@WilliamJHague) May 27, 2013
The EU's arms embargo was due to expire at the end of the month and talks appeared to have faltered earlier on agreeing a new common position for the 27 member states.
Ahead of the meeting, Mr Hague insisted that amending the embargo would force Assad’s regime to take peace talks seriously.
He said: “In our view it’s important to show that we are prepared to amend our arms embargo so that the Assad regime gets a clear signal that it has to negotiate seriously.
“Therefore, for us, amending the embargo is part of supporting the diplomatic work to bring about the political solution.
“We also have to think about what is happening to people in Syria, how long can we go on with people having every weapon that’s ever been devised dropped on them while most of the world denies them the means to defend themselves.
“That is creating extremism, it is radicalising people. We are reaching the limit of how long we can go on with that situation.”
But Tory MP John Baron warned increasing the amount of weapons in Syria could be “a mistake of historic proportions”, triggering a wider conflict across the Middle East.
Mr Baron told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “It beggars belief, the idea that ... pouring more arms into this conflict could not or would not escalate the violence. Of course it’s going to do that.
“But it could do something more dangerous, that is it could escalate the conflict beyond Syria’s borders. That is why it could be a mistake of historic proportions.”
Anna Macdonald, head of arms control at Oxfam, warned that supplying weapons would mean “adding fuel to the fire” in Syria.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are concerned that supplying arms to the opposition won’t level the playing field, in fact it will fuel a deadly arms race that will have even worse consequences for civilians.
“The millions of people suffering in Syria right now don’t need more arms, they need aid.”
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said: “How would the Government prevent British-supplied weapons falling into the wrong hands, and how does supplying weapons help to secure a lasting peace?”
Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, a member of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “It’s all very well to argue that the arms embargo should be lifted, but the unanswered questions remain.
“To whom would you supply weapons? What kind of weapons would you give the rebels? And where is the evidence that Assad would abandon his present course of action?”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said atrocities were being committed by both sides in a conflict which left her with a feeling of “utter dismay”.
She said she was “extremely concerned” at reports suggesting that hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured, and thousands may remain trapped, by indiscriminate shelling and aerial attacks by government forces in Qusair.
But she also warned of atrocities being carried out by rebel fighters: “Wanton human rights violations are also being committed by anti-government groups.
“Accounts gathered by our monitoring team suggest that armed groups have apparently used civilians as human shields and that abductions are increasing.
“The accounts include allegations that certain opposition groups have forced young women and minor girls to marry combatants.
“We continue to receive reports of anti-government groups committing gruesome crimes such as torture and extrajudicial executions.”
France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius claimed there were fresh indications that chemical weapons had been used in the conflict.
He said there were “stronger and better substantiated indications of the local use of chemical arms”.