BRUSSELS — Britain has proposed a series of options, including the possibility of ending the EU arms embargo against Syria, when the EU meets at the end of May. Both France and Britain have hinted they might go it alone if the EU cannot reach agreement.
In his press conference following a summit of EU heads of state and government here Thursday and Friday, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron argued that it was “right to have the debate now” and, in a very open-ended comment, added, “the embargo arrangements will be renewed, amended or discontinued in May.
“We have to be frank, what the international community has done so far ... hasn’t overall worked in terms of stopping this conflict and achieving transition in Syria,” he said. “I am not saying Britain would like to supply arms to rebels groups. What we want to do is work with them to ensure they are doing the right thing.”
He also dropped a hint that Britain and France could act without the rest of the EU if necessary. “If we want to take individual action, we are free to do so.”
Cameron rhetorically asked if it was “right that the arms embargo sees parity in EU help between the regime and opposition. Shouldn’t we send a clear signal that there’s a fundamental difference between the regime and the opposition?”
He expressed hope that a common position can be achieved in upcoming debates among EU foreign ministers. He also acknowledged that a change had already been made to the EU’s rules allowing technical assistance to the Syrian opposition.
In a statement to the U.K. parliament on Syria on March 6, U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague referred to a rule change that allows “the provision of non-lethal military equipment and all forms of technical assistance to the Syrian National Coalition where it is intended for the protection of civilians.”
“Such technical assistance can include assistance, advice and training on how to maintain security in areas no longer controlled by the regime, on coordination between civilian and military councils, on how to protect civilians and minimize the risks to them, and how to maintain security during a transition,” said Hague. “We will now provide such assistance, advice and training.”
“We want the Europeans to lift the arms embargo — not to go toward a total war, we think a political transition must be the solution for Syria — [but] we must accept our responsibilities,” said French President François Hollande as he arrived Thursday for the EU summit.
At a press conference after the summit ended the following day, Hollande said if agreement at the EU level is not possible, France could act alone in abandoning the embargo.
“If by chance one or two countries were to block the move ... I can’t speak for others, but France itself would take its responsibilities,” he said.
Hollande also stressed the need to find a common EU position while conceding, “this would not be easy at 27 and soon 28 [EU countries]” as “there are nuances and sensitivities.” Hollande said he respected Russia’s position in the region and wanted to do all he could “to associate Russia with a political solution.”
He called for a common EU position to be adopted by the end of May and “maybe before” as the “situation [in Syria] is evolving”. He described the biggest risk as “inaction” and “allowing [Syria’s President] Assad to massacre his people. That’s why we need to act,” he concluded.