Britain and France seek to aid those Syria rebels who will serve Western interests
François Hollande appeals to Europe to lift arms embargo at Brussels summit
France and Britain have moved a step closer to arming the opposition to the Assad regime in a radical move aimed at tipping the balance in the two-year civil war while also ignoring European policy on Syria.
The French president, François Hollande, went into an EU summit in Brussels with a dramatic appeal for Europe to join Paris and London in lifting a European arms embargo, but the sudden policy shift was certain to run into stiff German opposition.
“We want the Europeans to lift the embargo,” said Hollande. “Britain and France are agreed on this option … France has to first persuade its European partners. But France also has to accept its responsibilities. We can’t allow a people to be massacred by a regime which has shown that it doesn’t want a political discussion.”
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, called for the EU embargo to be abandoned, declaring that France and Britain would act in concert, as they did in going to war against Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya when Germany sided with Russia and China by abstaining from the UN security council vote.
William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, and David Cameron have this week spoken of the need for reviewing the EU arms embargo. British officials argue that they will not be “constrained” by the embargo. “The arms embargo prevents us from helping the moderates [in Syria],” said an official. “The regime is getting help. The extremists are getting help. The moderates are not.”
But British officials also stressed no decision had been taken to arm the Syrian opposition.
Fabius went further, accusing Iran and Russia of arming Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while the resistance went defenceless. “We can’t accept this current imbalance with on the one hand Iran and Russia supplying arms to Bashar and on the other the rebels who can’t defend themselves,” Fabius told French radio.
Two weeks ago, EU foreign ministers tightened the sanctions on Assad, at British insistence, and made it possible to bypass the ban on “non-lethal” supplies to the opposition. The sanctions policy can be reviewed at three-month intervals. Fabius said the embargo should be lifted now. “The position that we are taking, which is also the same as that of the British, is to demand that the Europeans lift the embargo now so that the rebels have the ability to defend themselves.”
Reports in France spoke of supplying ground-to-air missiles to the opposition to try to counter the regime’s air superiority in the war.
Germany and other countries such as Austria and Sweden are likely to maintain their opposition to arming the rebels, leaving common EU foreign policymaking in shreds and the EU sanctions policy a dead letter.
Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, said the French demands could be “discussed” but did not sound keen to push for a concerted European position on arms supplies. “We changed the European sanctions on Syria two weeks ago,” he said. “If important EU partners now see a different situation requiring in their view the sanctions decisions to be changed again, we are of course prepared to discuss that immediately.”
Fabius said the UK and French positions on arming the opposition were “identical” and it was one of the few levers left for having any outside political impact on the war in Syria.
Syria had not been on the agenda for the Brussels summit, but Hollande made clear he would force it on to the table.
He said he and Cameron shared the same position “because we believe that a people is in danger today. More than 100,000 [are] dead since the start of the uprising. Now we have to give the Syrian opposition the means finally to gain the upper hand, that is the departure of Bashar al-Assad.”
• This article was amended on 14 March 2013. It originally stated that Germany joined Russia and China at the UN security council in voting against going to war against Libya. It did side with these two countries but they all abstained in the vote. This has been corrected.