France - United Kingdom - Syria

France, Britain may arm Syrian rebels without EU backing

Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

France and Britain may arm Syrian rebels on their own if the European Union (EU) fails to back the move, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday. Paris and London want an EU meeting on the Syrian embargo to take place earlier than planned.

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France wants "the Europeans to lift the embargo" on arms sales to Syria's opposition, French President François Hollande said in Brussels on Thursday evening ahead of an EU summit Friday.

The EU slapped an arms embargo in 2011 when Bashar al-Assad’s regime violently suppressed opposition protests and has maintained it as the movement has escalated into civil war.

Last month it amended the ban to allow member nations to supply "non-lethal" equipment and training to the opposition but did not lift the ban entirely.

France and Britain want "the Europeans now to lift the embargo so that the resistance fighters have the possibility of defending themselves," Fabius told France Info radio on Thursday.

"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.

France and the UK will ask for the meeting to be brought forward from May, the date that is currently in the EU diary, he said.

But several EU countries are worried that arms could go to Islamist groups that are active in Syria at present, so it is unlikely that the decision will win the unanimous support it needs.

Fabius indicated that, if it that is the case, France and Britain could go it alone, pointing out that France “is a sovereign nation”.

British 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.

If the EU does not change its mind, he said, “it's not out of the question we might have to do things in our own way”, adding "We are still an independent country, we can have an independent foreign policy."

Fabius’s comments were welcomed by the Syrian opposition as a step in the right direction, but condemned by the Assad regime, which said arming the rebels was "a flagrant violation" of international law.

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