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Europe’s leaders on collision course over arming Syrian opposition

France wants to lift the EU embargo on arming rebels, Britain wants to review it and Germany wants to keep the status quo


I in Brussels

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius says Iran and Russia are arming Assad’s regime while the resistance goes defenceless. Photograph: Bertrand Langlois/ AFP/Getty

Europe‘s key leaders appear to be on a collision course over arming the Syrian opposition as France and Britain closed ranks behind lifting an arms embargo strongly contested by Germany.

At an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday night, President François Hollande of France said it would join David Cameron in arguing for the end of an arms embargo on Syria, but Germany appears unlikely to shift in its opposition.

“We want the Europeans to lift the embargo on the weapons.” Hollande said. “Since we have to put pressure on and show we are ready to support the opposition, we have to go that far. That is what I will tell my European colleagues.”

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, earlier 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 joined Russia and China at the UN security council in voting against.

William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, and 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.”

Fabius went further, accusing Iran and Russia of arming the Assad 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. He said Hollande was demanding the embargo be lifted.

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.

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.




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