Foreign ministers in the European Union agree on the need to stabilize Mali and, for the first time, are considering supplying arms to the Syrian opposition. But the next step will largely depend on Russia.
Although numerous European countries have pledged to lend their support to a mission in Mali, France remains virtually the only foreign country to send troops to aid local armed forces.
"We need stable conditions," Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said of the region. "If some kind of terrorist camp is established in northern Mali that can make the world hold its breath - no one can be indifferent to that, " he added, before referring to a recent deadly hostage crisis in neighboring Algeria.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle argued the best help for France would be "to enable African troops to meet their responsibilities in northern Mali." The EU hopes that a mission to train African soldiers will give them the skills they needs to regain control over northern Mali. The training mission is expected to begin in March.
EU politicians, however, also stressed that more than military intervention is needed in Mali. "A permanent stabilization of Mali is only possible if a political solution is the focus of international efforts," Westerwelle said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton spoke of a comprehensive EU strategy for the Sahel region. It would consist of humanitarian and development aid, as well as military training and the establishment of democratic structures.
The EU has said it expects the Malian government, once it stabilizes the country, to begin a dialogue with the insurgents and prepare for elections.
Preventing revenge attacks
EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Kristalina Georgieva recently toured Mali. She demanded the military immediately allow humanitarian relief in the region, and warned Malian soldiers against taking revenge on the rebels. European military trainers should make sure that the Africans respect international law, precisely because of the "long history of ethnic tensions" in Mali, she added.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers called on the Malian government to investigate allegations of human rights violations.
The path to Syrian sanctions
While the ministers said they had the impression that "things were moving" in Mali, as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said with satisfaction, they were more pessimistic about Syria.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said he expected a "long civil war," while Paris called for an end to the EU arms embargo to Syria, as it also applies to sending weapons to rebels. While Great Britain and Italy also expressed their sympathy with such a plan, most ministers came out against the scheme.
The Netherlands' Frans Timmermans said it would be "unwise to lift the current arms embargo as it could lead to the spread of weapons in the region and worsen the situation." But he also admitted that this would be to the detriment of the rebels.
For his part, Westerwelle seemed to show a shift in the Germany's Syria policy by saying that the "justified interests" of the opposition needed "not only political but also actual support."
Dealing with Moscow
The current embargo will expire in March, which will leave political leaders with no choice but to discuss the matter again at their next Council meeting on February 18. But a change on the part of Russia would please European ministers the most. The Kremlin has been Syrian President Bashar Assad's staunch ally throughout the Syrian uprising.
"There is no way around Russia," Austria's Spindelegger said.
Meanwhile Westerwelle made his first comments on the alleged Israeli attack of a Syrian research facility. While calling the exact situation unclear and information uncertain, Westerwelle indirectly warned Israel to refrain from further military action. "Everyone should know what they should be doing, and right now is the time for de-escalation," he said.
EU ministers also addressed recent unrest in Egypt during their talks. Ministers said they were concerned by the violent protests against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, as well as the increasingly authoritarian response from Morsi.
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