France, UK willing to arm Syrian rebels
15 March 2013, 12:11
Damascus - France has joined Britain in voicing its willingness to supply weapons to Syria's rebels if it cannot convince its European partners to lift an arms embargo as the conflict enters its third year.
"Our goal is to convince our partners at the end of May, and if possible before.... If by chance there is a blockage by one or two countries, then France will take its responsibilities," President Francois Hollande said on Thursday after talks on the first day of a European Union summit in Brussels.
"Political solutions have now failed [in Syria], despite every pressure," Hollande said, on the eve of Friday's second anniversary of the start of the bloody conflict between the Syrian regime and the rebels seeking to topple it.
The United Nations says at least 70 000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising erupted in mid-March 2011.
"We must go further because for two years there has been a clear willingness by [Syrian President] Bashar Assad to use every means to hit at his own people," he added.
France said earlier that Paris and London were pushing for the EU to drop the arms ban - a move opposed by some European governments, who fear a flood of weapons into Syria will only escalate the conflict.
Syrian opposition activists have called on London and Paris to provide heavy weaponry to tilt the balance in the two-year uprising.
Assad's government, like its key foreign ally Russia, said any such arms shipments would be a "flagrant violation" of international law.
The United States may look favourably on the French and British moves to give more aid to Syrian rebel forces, the State Department said on Thursday, without explicitly backing armed support.
"We're obviously not going to get in the middle of their internal discussions, but we certainly want to see as many governments as possible provide appropriate support to the Syrian opposition coalition," said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland in Washington.
However, Berlin is known to be cool to the idea and on Thursday German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU needed to "proceed very cautiously" on lifting the embargo.
"If our partners in the European Union, in this case Britain and France, have a changed assessment of the situation, then the foreign ministers are of course ready to discuss this subject again," she said.
Tipping the balance
"But we have to be careful that the other side will not be provided with even more arms by countries that have another stance on Assad," Merkel said.
Some have also raised fears that European-supplied weapons would fall into the hands of radical Islamist militants, who are playing an increasingly prominent role in Syria's armed uprising.
Hollande said Paris had "every guarantee that the weapons supplied will be in non-fundamentalist hands".
Hollande insisted the rebels need to be armed to tip the balance against Assad's regime, which continues to "receive arms despite sanctions", notably from Russia.
"We must go further because there are threats, fears on the use of chemical weapons," Hollande added.
Sources said Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron held bilateral talks on Syria shortly before other EU leaders sat down and that the subject was to come up again on the second day of the summit on Friday, despite not being on the official agenda.
Cameron said on Tuesday that Britain would consider ignoring the European Union arms ban if it could not end it.
"It's not out of the question we might have to do things in our own way. It's possible,"he said.
"We are still an independent country, we can have an independent foreign policy."
Paris and London are expected to press for quick new EU talks on the embargo, which was extended on 28 February for three months to June 1 by EU foreign ministers, though such sanctions are always reviewed in case events change.
At the February talks, ministers agreed to ease the embargo 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.
Syria's main opposition bloc, the National Coalition, welcomed France's initiative as "a step in the right direction".
Assad "will not accept a political solution until he realises he is faced with a force that will defeat him", coalition spokesperson Walid al-Bunni said.
"The key question is what kind of weapons would France and Britain provide. We need heavy weapons, especially anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons," said Ahmad al-Khatib, spokesperson for the Syrian Revolution General Commission.
Regime warplanes bombarded rebel positions across Syria on Thursday, a day on which violence cost at least 147 lives, almost equally divided between civilians, rebels and soldiers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Security Council on Thursday expressed "grave concern" over cross-border attacks between Syria and Lebanon, and over the impact of the Syrian conflict on its smaller neighbour.