London and Paris are seeking to lift an EU embargo to enable them to arm Syrian rebels, said the French foreign minister.
The move has angered Damascus but has drawn a guarded welcome from the opposition.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said that the two governments were ready to go ahead with arms deliveries even without the support of their partners. 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 ally Russia, said any such arms shipments would be a “flagrant violation” of international law.
Fabius told France Info radio 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 on Feb 28 was extended for three months by EU foreign ministers, although such sanctions are always reviewed in case events change.
But he warned the two governments were willing to go ahead with arms deliveries with or 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 on Monday at foreign ministers’ talks, there were wide divisions. Many EU governments warned supplying arms to the opposition would lead to an increase in violence.
The EU said 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,” said Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Syria’s main armed opposition bloc, the National Coalition, has welcomed Fabius’s comments, saying 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,” said coalition spokesman Walid al-Bunni.
“As long as the Europeans and the Americans do not arm the rebels, they are telling Assad to keep fighting,” he said.
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