France and Britain pushed their European Union partners to lift an arms embargo on Syria, with President Francois Hollande indicating France may act alone and start arming the rebels when it expires at the end of May.
With several members of the 27-country bloc expressing concerns about fueling the two-year-old conflict, leaders asked foreign ministers to take up the issue in a meeting in Dublin next week.
“This drama has been going on for two years, and the number of victims is rising by the day,” Hollande told reporters after an EU summit in Brussels today. “We want to see these weapons going to the coalition and only to the coalition. The biggest risk is doing nothing.”
Hollande said the EU needed to change its approach because diplomatic efforts to force out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have failed, and because his government is receiving weapons from abroad, primarily from Russia. The Syrian conflict has killed more than 70,000 people and the United Nations said this week that 1.1 million refugees have fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other countries.
“Is it right to have an arms embargo that still sees parity in terms of who you help between the regime and the opposition?” British Prime Minister David Cameron said. “We should be sending a clear signal that there is a fundamental difference when it comes to the regime and the opposition.”
Both Hollande and Cameron said they want to convince all EU states to agree on weakening the embargo. Hollande said that if the rolling three-month embargo isn’t renewed when it expires May 31, France “will take its responsibilities.” He said the rebels need the means to defend areas of the country they control.
French officials have said they would consider delivering anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels. They say Assad’s army is receiving weapons from Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as Russia.
Cameron was less explicit than Hollande. “As things stand today, I am not saying Britain would actually want to supply weapons to rebel groups,” he said.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU must move “extremely cautiously” on the embargo, which was first imposed in May 2011 and is reviewed every three months.
Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt indicated Denmark would opt to keep the embargo. “We understand the French position but the Danish government has taken the view that delivering weapons risks an even greater militarization of the conflict, especially if the weapons fall in the wrong hands,” she said as she arrived at today’s meeting.
Sweden, Belgium and the Czech Republic are the other countries most opposed to lifting the embargo, according to French officials. Hollande said the Syrian National Coalition, the broadest opposition bloc, has given guarantees the weapons won’t reach radical groups.
Other leaders said their main concern is to maintain EU unity. “We all are deeply concerned about the desperate situation in Syria,” the Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte said. “Europe can only play a strong and effective role if it acts as one. If partners want to revisit common decisions we should hear them out and decide jointly.”
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius first indicated in a series of interviews this week that France would consider going alone or with Britain to arm the rebels.
A French decision to go it alone would signify a major rupture in attempts to create a common EU foreign policy. While not all EU countries took part in the air war over Libya in 2011, the military action was led through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, not the EU. France’s military intervention in Mali is authorized by United Nations resolutions, French officials say.
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