Britain, France press divided Europe to arm Syria rebels

Britain and France pressed reluctant European Union partners to supply weapons to Syria's rebels at talks Friday between the bloc's foreign ministers that appeared headed for stalemate.

As unseasonal wintry weather delayed the start of a likely showdown over the contested Franco-British push, ministers headed into Dublin's historic castle split over the consequences of lifting a nearly two-year-old embargo to tip the balance on the ground in favour of the insurgents.

Germany remained "very reluctant", said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle after Paris and London forced the issue on EU leaders at a summit only a week ago but raised little to no support.

"On one side you have to help and support people -- on the other side prevent that aggressive weapons come into the wrong hands," Westerwelle said amid talk notably of supplying ground-to-air missiles against air attacks by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

"This is not an easy decision," he said, adding that it was important however to find "an agreed position" as "the more united we act the more influence we will have in the region."

While the two-day meeting is not expected to yield a final decision, the talks mark the start of weeks of debate ahead of a May 31 deadline to renew a far-reaching package of EU sanctions against the Assad regime, including the embargo. If not agreed unanimously by the EU-27 it will expire.

Austria's Michael Spindelegger, whose country states it is on the same line as the Czech Republic, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden, as well as UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, meanwhile reiterated his staunch opposition to a lifting of the embargo.

"The EU wasn't created to deliver arms. There can be no change to this principle," he said.

Vienna would likely remove its almost 400 soldiers making up a third of the UN peace force in the disputed Golan Heights near Syria and Israel should the EU lift the arms ban, Spindelegger said.

"We don't need more weapons in Syria," he said. "We need a political solution."

The ministers are concerned the weapons could end up in the hands of radical jihadists and want answers as to what kind of weapons would be supplied and to who.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said supplying arms to insurgents would "enable the Syrian resistance fighters to defend themselves, given of course that if the embargo is lifted the arms delivered must not fall into enemy hands".

As the conflict goes into its third year, with more than 70,000 dead and one out of five Syrians in need of aid, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was important to increase support to the opposition.

"Our aim here is to see if we can achieve agreement within the EU, if not we can obviously act on our own," he said.

After sharp divisions over the Balkans in the 1990s and Iraq in 2003, Britain and France first went it alone in Libya in 2011 but finally won the support of more than a dozen nations for a NATO-led no-fly zone that was backed by the UN.

"France and Britain traditionally act as a motor. When they commit and engage others will follow," said Vivien Pertusot of the IFRI think-tank.

Hague seemed to hold out some hope of compromise however by saying that the embargo could either be lifted entirely or "seriously" amended.

Just three weeks ago, the two European defence giants pressed their EU partners to ease the Syria arms embargo to allow the supply of "non-lethal" equipment as well as "technical assistance" -- which includes training -- to the rebels.

Britain immediately pledged armoured vehicles and protective clothing.

Diplomatic sources said the existing arms embargo possibly could be amended again to allow the supply this time of "lethal" but "defensive" equipment.

The move by Britain and France comes as hopes dim both of a political solution or military breakthrough in Syria.

"We are more likely to see political progress if people can see the Syrian opposition as a credible and strengthening force," British Prime Minister David Cameron said last week.

But the West remains dubious over the fragmented Syrian opposition, with the US military's top officer General Martin Dempsey this week saying Washington had only an "opaque" view of the rebels.

Top US diplomat John Kerry said the United States would not oppose moves by some European countries to arm Syrian rebels but Washington has fears the weapons could end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda linked militants.