BRUSSELS  - The European Union stood divided Friday on whether to lift an embargo on supplying arms to Syria’s opposition despite a strong push from Britain and France.

Pressed by the two major EU powers to help tip the balance in the conflict by arming the ill-equipped rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, leaders of the 27-nation bloc agreed to discuss the issue again next week, but there was little sign of a deal in the offing. “We agreed to task our foreign ministers to assess the situation as a matter of priority” at talks in Dublin on March 22 and 23, EU President Herman Van Rompuy said at the close of a two-day summit.

As the bloody conflict entered its third year, London and Paris said there was no sign of Assad relenting on the political front as he continued to receive arms from Russia and elsewhere.

But there was little appetite from some Europeans for arming the rebels, fearful that a flood of weapons into Syria would only escalate the conflict.

“It is unlikely there will be an agreement to lift the arms embargo given very principled opposition from some nations, such as Germany,” Jan Techau, head of the Carnegie think-tank, told AFP. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country is traditionally shy of conflict, said “I haven’t made up my mind yet”, but added that “we have a series of reservations because one has to ask whether or not one is fanning the flames of the conflict.” “It is an extremely difficult situation,” she added after the summit. “It must be considered very very carefully.”

After British Prime Minister David Cameron this week called for an EU arms embargo to be lifted, France’s President Francois Hollande unexpectedly turned the spotlight on the issue on arriving in Brussels, saying: “We want Europeans to lift the arms embargo.” “Political solutions have now failed,” he said. “We cannot allow a people to be massacred by a regime that for now does not want a political transition,” Hollande said.

Like Britain, France warned it was ready to break ranks with European partners to supply weapons to the rebels. Paris was ready to “take its responsibilities” if other EU nations were unwilling to lift the embargo, Hollande said.

“Of course people want a political solution,” said Cameron. “We are more likely to see political progress if people can see the Syrian opposition as a credible and strengthening force.”

The EU embargo on supplying arms to Syria, whether to the regime or rebels, is part of a package of sanctions that was extended on February 28 for three months by EU foreign ministers, though such sanctions are always reviewed in case events change.

At the February talks ministers agreed under pressure from Britain, France and Italy to ease the arms ban to enable any EU state to provide non-lethal aid or training to the insurgents.

Britain quickly pledged armoured vehicles and protective clothing for the opposition. But a number of EU countries have been sceptical about going further and dropping the arms ban.

“We are against the end of the arms embargo. We think the delivery of arms does not contribute to a possible solution,” Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann told reporters in Brussels. An EU diplomat said many countries were likely to fall in quietly behind Germany and refuse to lift the ban. Carnegie think-tank analyst Techau said the dispute would further undermine EU efforts to speak with one voice on the world scene.

Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Coalition plans to meet in Istanbul next week to elect a prime minister for rebel-held areas of the country, a member said on Friday.

“The Coalition is to meet on March 18-19 in Istanbul. So far, the meeting is going ahead, and it is to choose the head of government. Consultations are continuing,” Samir Nashar told AFP.

He said different names were being put forward. “At times there is a name that has the upper hand, then another, things change. One of the reasons for the differences on the identity of the head of government is foreign intervention,” he said, referring to the opposition’s foreign supporters.

The SNC, the main bloc within the Coalition, has proposed its former head Burhan Ghalioun and members Salim al-Moslet and Osama Kadi. Other names include ex-Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab, who defected last summer, and Khaled Mustafa.

The opposition has already twice postponed meetings due to have been held earlier this month because of a lack of consensus on the choice of premier.

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency said Friday that Syria’s war and the refugee crisis it triggered are at real risk of exploding across the Middle East.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres also urged the world to strive to end the conflict and to step up humanitarian aid, calling it a “morale obligation” and “essential to preserve global peace and global security”. “I believe that if the Syrian conflict goes on and on and on, there is a real risk of an explosion in the Middle East, and then there will be no way to cope with the challenge from the humanitarian, political and security perspective,” said Guterres.

The United Nations says more than 1.1 million Syrians have fled mostly to Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, and some four million others have been displaced inside their war-torn country.

Guterres - in Lebanon on the last leg of a regional tour that also took him to Jordan and Turkey - raised the alarm over the potential security impact the refugee crisis could have on Syria’s neighbours.

“The Syrian crisis is not just another crisis, and what we are dealing with now is that the Syrian crisis is a tipping point,” he told reporters.

“Things get much worse before they get better. Not only do they get much worse in Syria, but they can have a very, very big impact on the countries around.”