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Britain could sidestep EU ban on arming Syria rebels: PM

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Britain would consider ignoring a European Union arms ban and supplying weapons to Syrian rebels if it would help topple President Bashar al-Assad, Prime Minister David Cameron said Tuesday.

The EU last month amended its embargo to allow member nations to supply "non-lethal" equipment and training to the opposition but stopped short of lifting the embargo entirely.

Asked by a parliamentary committee whether Britain would veto the arms embargo when it comes up for renewal in three months' time, Cameron said he would "like to continue with an EU approach."

"I hope that we can persuade our European partners if and when it becomes necessary (to provide weapons) they'll agree with us," he told the House of Commons Liaison Committee.

"But if we can't, then it's not out of the question we might have to do things in our own way. It's possible.

"We are still an independent country, we can have an independent foreign policy."

Pressed on whether Britain could sidestep the arms ban, Cameron said: "If for instance we felt that action needed to be taken to help bring about change in Syria, to help end this appalling bloodshed, and if we felt our European partners were holding that back, then we'd have to change the approach."

When the committee said that arming the rebels could be risky the British premier replied: "That is not a decision we've taken and I hope we don't have to break from a collaborative approach across the EU.

"I was just making a point that if we thought that was the right thing to do, we would do it.

"It's worth standing back and asking "Why are we doing this?" It seems that if we want to help bring about a transition in Syria, we have to work with opposition groups," he added.

The 27-member EU is split over whether to supply arms to the Syrian rebels, with Britain, France and Italy tipping in favour of eventual military aid for the opposition and Germany and others warning against it.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Monday suggested the bloc may need to rethink its strategy.

"It seems obvious to me that the question of lifting the arms embargo will be increasingly on the table due to the evident imbalance between Bashar al-Assad, who is being supplied with powerful weaponry from Iran and Russia, and the National Coalition, which does not have such weapons," Fabius said after talks with his 26 EU counterparts.

Assad turned his sights on Britain earlier this month, accusing its government of wanting to arm "terrorists".

"How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supplies to the terrorists and don't try to ease the dialogue between the Syrians?" Assad told The Sunday Times in a video-taped interview.

He added that "Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in different issues for decades, some say for centuries.

"The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of a bullying hegemony."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague reacted to the interview by charging that the Syrian leader was "delusional".

The EU is the largest humanitarian donor for the Syrian crisis, with more than 428 million euros ($556 million) sent to help distressed Syrians inside and outside the country.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130312/britain-could-sidestep-eu-ban-arming-syria-rebels-pm