Britain, France ready to arm Syria rebels: Fabius

14th March 2013, Comments 0 comments

London and Paris are seeking to lift an EU embargo to enable them to arm Syrian rebels, the French foreign minister said on Thursday, angering Damascus but drawing a guarded welcome from the opposition.

Opposition activists called on the two governments to provide heavy weaponry not just small arms to tilt the balance in the two-year uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

Assad's government, like its key foreign ally Russia, said any such arms shipments would be a "flagrant violation" of international law.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Info radio that Britain and France will ask "the Europeans now to lift the embargo so that the resistance fighters have the possibility of defending themselves."

Fabius said Assad's government was receiving weapons from Iran and Russia which gave it an edge over the opposition.

He said Paris and London would press for quick new EU talks on the Syria arms embargo, which was extended on February 28 for three months by EU foreign ministers, although such sanctions are always reviewed in case events change.

Fabius said the two governments were ready to go ahead with arms deliveries even without the support of their partners.

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.

When the Syria issue came up again at foreign ministers' talks on Monday, there were wide divisions, with many EU governments warning that supplying arms to the opposition would lead to an increase in violence.

The EU said on Thursday it was possible to hold new talks "without further delay.

"If a member state wants to start the discussion without further delay, it is always possible," Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told AFP.

Syria's main armed opposition bloc, the National Coalition, welcomed Fabius's comments, saying that Western armed deliveries were essential to the success of the uprising.

"We consider it 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 spokesman Walid al-Bunni told AFP.

"As long as the Europeans and the Americans do not arm the rebels, they are telling Assad to keep fighting," he said.

Syria's official SANA news agency reported that "in a flagrant violation of the principles of international law, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has announced Paris and London's intention to provide weapons to terrorist groups in Syria."

The position echoed that of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said on Wednesday that "arming the opposition is in breach of international law."

Activists on the ground said it was vital that London and Paris provide the right sort of weaponry.

"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, spokesman for the Syrian Revolution General Commission.

French officials said Paris was considering providing the rebels with ground-to-air missiles.

Doha-based analyst Salman Sheikh said the readiness of Britain and France to arm the rebels was "hugely significant".

"I think it shows the chapter of the last two years is certainly closed and now these countries are... looking to put in measures that actually are going to be much more effective on the ground."

London-based think-tank the International Institute of Strategic Studies said the momentum was slowly shifting towards the rebels.

Although the prospect of foreign military intervention in Syria remained "remote", "it was likely that, over time, the balance of forces would shift to the rebels," the think-tank said in its annual report.

Israel's military intelligence chief said the Assad regime had contingency plans to use its stockpile of chemical weapons.

"Assad is making advance preparations to use chemical weapons. He did not give the order yet, but is preparing for it," Major General Avi Kohavi said.

The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising erupted in March 2011.

Violence on Wednesday killed at least 159 people, among them 63 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

© 2013 AFP

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