Last updated: March 15, 2013 11:07 am

UK and France push to arm Syria rebels

France has joined a UK campaign to press fellow EU leaders to lift an arms embargo against Syria so that member states can supply weapons to rebel groups.

François Hollande, the French president, told reporters that political initiatives to resolve the crisis had failed, and invoked the possible use of chemical weapons by the regime against its own citizens as a justification to overturn the EU policy.

“The political solutions did not work – this is regrettable,” Mr Hollande said.”‘We have to go further because there are some threats about the potential use of chemical weapons.”

Mr Hollande and David Cameron, the UK prime minister, are planning to confront fellow leaders about the embargo on Friday – the second anniversary of the Syria uprising – at an EU summit in Brussels that was supposed to have been devoted to economic and budget issues.

Downing Street officials say they have been motivated to force the issue on to the agenda by the worsening situation in Syria, where the death toll has now surpassed 70,000. “What we want to do is inject some political momentum from the highest levels,” one said.

Mr Hollande’s support raises the odds for a major shift in an EU policy reaffirmed just last month by foreign ministers. It is reminiscent of the dynamic two years ago, when the French and UK forces plunged into the Libya conflict after Mr Cameron gave his backing to Nicolas Sarkozy, then French president, on the eve of another Brussels gathering.

On Friday, Austria responded by saying it opposed the push by the UK and France, concerned about the safety of its peacekeepers on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Reuters reported. Fears about the safety of observers intensified this month after a group of Filipino UN Disengagement Observer Force soldiers were taken hostage – and later released – by an armed rebel group on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line. Austria is the only EU country that contributes soldiers to the UNDOF, Reuters said.

“One can never rule out whose hands more weapons will end up in, and that’s why I am against this suggestion,” newly-appointed defence minister Gerald Klug told national broadcaster ORF, the news agency said.

A key focus will be the position of Germany, which has so far opposed lifting the embargo. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, continued to remain cautious on Thursday night.

While she expressed alarm about the “bloodbath” in Syria, she said her government remained concerned that weapons provided to rebels could end up in the hands of other groups that threatened German and western interests.

“If individual parties in the European Union – in this case the UK and France – want to change things, the foreign minister is willing to discuss it,” Ms Merkel said.

The UK has been waging a campaign to repeal the embargo since December, but mostly confronting the same misgivings expressed by Germany.

In depth

Syria uprising

The brutal response by the regime of Bashar al-Assad to the popular revolt is exposing failures in international policy and the wishful thinking of policy makers who believed the president was a reformer

At the meeting of EU foreign ministers last month, the UK failed to lift the embargo although it did manage to persuade ministers to allow governments to provide “technical assistance” to rebels to aid in their defence, including training and body armour.

Some member states appear to be reconsidering amid a growing acceptance that the embargo may actually be penalising the rebels since government forces are continuing to receive support from Iran and Russia.

Reluctant governments also appeared to be reassessing, according to one European diplomat, after receiving a grave assessment about the conflict on Monday from Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy to Syria.

“The mindset is changing,” said Mr Hollande, who argued that the threat of arms supplies to the rebels might help to force Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, to reconsider a political transition that he has so far resisted.

“It is a major decision – we are not alone making it,” the French president said. “I think the UK agrees.”

Under EU rules, amending the embargo would require unanimous support from the 27 member states. If the UK and France cannot secure that, then they could in effect end it through more controversial means when it comes up for review at the end of May.

Without their support, the embargo would in effect collapse. The danger, however, is that a broader regime of sanctions against Syrian government officials and businesses that support them would also be scrapped.

On Tuesday, Mr Cameron said it was “not out of the question” that Britain would break with the EU over the embargo and “do things in our own way”.

Downing Street said on Thursday evening that Mr Cameron had not yet reached any conclusions about how he would proceed, but was eager “to start the discussion” with fellow leaders.

Additional reporting by Quentin Peel in Berlin

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