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France, Britain to push EU to end Syria arms ban

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

France and Britain were set Friday to push European leaders to lift a ban on supplying arms to Syria's rebels, as the country marked the second anniversary of the start of its increasingly bloody conflict.

London and Paris were to raise the issue of the EU's arms embargo on Syria on the final day of a summit in Brussels, with both warning they were ready to break ranks with their European partners to supply weapons to the rebels.

But there appeared little appetite among other Europeans for dropping the ban, many fearing that a flood of weapons into Syria will only escalate the conflict.

French President Francois Hollande said Thursday that attempts to find a political solution to Syria's conflict had failed and the rebels needed to have the means to defend themselves.

Hollande said Paris was ready to "take its responsibilities" and supply the rebels with arms if other EU nations were unwilling to lift the embargo.

"Political solutions have now failed (in Syria), despite every pressure," Hollande said. "We must go further because for two years there has been a clear willingness by Bashar al-Assad to use every means to hit at his own people."

Hollande had upped the stakes on arrival at the two-day summit, bluntly telling journalists: "We want Europeans to lift the arms embargo."

"We cannot allow a people to be massacred by a regime that for now does not want a political transition," Hollande said.

A British official said current European efforts were failing and a change in tactics was needed to alter the balance on the ground and influence Assad.

"The EU needs to think again on an arms embargo, because it is backfiring against those it is supposed to be protecting" by allowing only Assad's regime to obtain new arms, the official told AFP.

"We want to put more pressure on the regime to advance towards a political solution," the official said.

But a number of EU countries have been sceptical about dropping the arms ban.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU needed to "proceed very cautiously" on lifting the embargo.

And Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said his country was not prepared to lift the ban.

"We are against the end of the arms embargo. We think the delivery of arms does not contribute to a possible solution," he told reporters as talks began Friday.

A Spanish diplomatic source said there was widespread hesitation about supplying weapons to the rebels.

"I think the (EU) member countries don't want to follow the French position," the source said. "We want to let things evolve."

Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron held bilateral talks on Syria on Thursday and sources said the subject was to come up again on the second day of the summit, despite not being on the official agenda.

A French diplomatic source said no concrete moves were expected on the embargo on Friday.

"The decision will not be taken this morning, but we must start the debate," the source said.

Paris and London are expected to press for quick new EU talks on the embargo, which was part of a package of sanctions extended on February 28 for three months by EU foreign ministers, though such sanctions are always reviewed in case events change.

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.

Syria's main opposition bloc, the National Coalition, has welcomed efforts to lift the embargo as as "a step in the right direction".

But Assad's government, like its key foreign ally and main weapons supplier Russia, said any arms shipments to the opposition would be a "flagrant violation" of international law.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130315/france-britain-push-eu-end-syria-arms-ban-0