Paris: France and Britain are seeking to lift an EU embargo to enable them to arm Syrian rebels, arguing that Moscow’s supply of weapons to Damascus is giving the regime an unfair edge, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday.
His comments were welcomed by the Syrian opposition as a step in the right direction, but condemned by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad which said arming the rebels was “a flagrant violation” of international law.
The European Union is sharply divided over the issue, with some fearing that sending more weapons to Syria could further escalate a brutal two-year conflict that has left about 70,000 people dead according to UN figures.
Fabius said Paris and London plan to call for the next EU meeting on the weapons ban, currently planned for the end of May, to be held sooner.
“The position that we have taken with President Francois Hollande is to ask (the European Union) to lift the embargo on arms (to the rebels)” he said.
Fabius said Paris could decide to arm the rebels even if the 27-member body does not give unanimous agreement, underscoring that France “is a sovereign nation” and hinting at independent action.
The EU last month amended its embargo to allow member nations to supply “non-lethal” equipment and training to the opposition but stopped short of lifting the ban entirely.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Tuesday that Britain would consider sidestepping the EU arms ban and supply weapons to Syrian rebels if it would help topple Assad.
“I hope that we can persuade our European partners if and when it becomes necessary (to provide weapons) they’ll agree with us,” he said. “But if we can’t, then it’s not out of the question we might have to do things in our own way. It’s possible.
“We are still an independent country, we can have an independent foreign policy.”
Fabius told France Info radio that France and Britain will ask “the Europeans now to lift the embargo so that the resistance fighters have the possibility of defending themselves.”
“We cannot accept the current disequilibrium with Iran and Russia supplying arms to Assad on the one hand and the opposition unable to defend itself on the other,” he said.
French officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Paris was considering providing the rebels with ground-to-air missiles to retaliate against air strikes by government troops.
“Lifting the embargo is the only means of moving things on a political level,” Fabius said, hinting at pressure on the Damascus regime and Moscow.
Syria’s main opposition National Coalition welcomed the announcement.
“We consider it a step in the right direction… Assad will not accept a political solution until he realises he is faced with an (armed) force that will defeat him,” spokesman Walid al-Bunni told AFP.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said Paris and London’s intention to provide weapons to “terrorist groups” was in “flagrant violation” of the principles of international law.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia — the regime’s biggest arms supplier — had made similar comments on Wednesday.
But Fabius said one could not take recourse to legal arguments to say that “‘we can supply arms to Assad but will not allow resistance fighters to defend themselves’.”
Western powers have stepped up aid for the rebels, with Britain currently giving “non-lethal” support, but Germany has warned that delivering weapons to the opposition could lead to a dangerous arms race in the region.
The next EU meeting to study the embargo is planned for the end of May, but Fabius said Paris and London want to hold the meeting sooner and did not rule out a gathering before the end of March.
“We must move quickly,” he said, adding: “We along with the British will ask for the meeting to be moved up.”
More than 70,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, according to the United Nations, while the number of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries has reached one million.