PARIS — France and Britain are ready to arm Syrian rebels even without unanimous EU support, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday.
Paris and London will call for moving up the date of the next European Union meeting on the Syria arms embargo and will decide to arm the rebels if the 27-member body does not give unanimous agreement, he said.
Fabius said the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was receiving weapons from Iran and Russia that gave it an edge over the opposition in the two-year conflict.
France and Britain will ask “the Europeans now to lift the embargo so that the resistance fighters have the possibility of defending themselves,” he told France Info radio. “We cannot accept the current disequilibrium with Iran and Russia supplying arms to Assad on the one hand and the opposition unable to defend itself on the other.”
French officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Paris was considering providing the rebels with ground-to-air missiles to retaliate against air strikes by government troops.
“Lifting the embargo is the only means of moving things on a political level,” Fabius said.
If unanimous EU support for lifting the measure is lacking, the French and British governments will decide to deliver weapons, Fabius said, adding that France “is a sovereign nation.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday said that “arming the opposition is in breach of international law.” But Fabius rejected this, saying that one could not take recourse to legal arguments to say that “‘we can supply arms to Assad but will not allow resistance fighters to defend themselves.’”
Western powers have stepped up nonmilitary support for the rebels, even as Russia has continued to arm its ally Assad. Britain is currently giving “nonlethal” support to the rebels, but its foreign and defense ministers have refused to rule out arming them.
The next EU meeting to study the embargo is planned for the end of May, but Fabius said Paris and London want to hold the meeting sooner.
“We must move quickly,” he said, adding, “We, along with the British, will ask for the meeting to be moved up.”
He did not rule out a gathering before the end of March. Prime Minister David Cameron said Tuesday that Britain would consider ignoring an EU arms ban and supplying weapons to Syrian rebels if it would help topple Assad.
The EU last month amended its embargo to allow member nations to supply “nonlethal” equipment and training to the opposition but stopped short of lifting the embargo entirely.
More than 70,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, according to the United Nations, while the number of refugees has reached one million.