France: Is it time to arm Syria's rebels?

Two days after recognizing new Syrian opposition group, France said it would float giving rebels defensive weapons. But even with the French push, such arms shipments look far from imminent.

Asmaa Waguih/REUTERS
Top row, left to right, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius attend the joint Arab League-European foreign ministers' meeting on Syria, at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo Tuesday.

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Just two days after becoming the first nation to recognize Syria's new opposition group, the French government has said it will begin discussions with its partners in Europe to end the European Union's embargo against arming the rebels. But while France appears willing to step up its involvement in the Syrian civil war, its Western allies, including the United States, still seem cool to the idea.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe's RTL radio today that while France is wary of escalating the Syrian conflict, it does not want rebel-controlled regions to fall for lack of self-defense, reports Agence France-Presse.

"For the moment, there is an embargo, so there are no arms being delivered from the European side. The issue ... will no doubt be raised for defensive arms," he told RTL radio.

"The issue will be raised because the (opposition) coalition has asked us to do so," he said, adding that "this is something that we can only do in coordination with the Europeans."

"France's position for the moment is to say that we must not militarise the conflict, but it is evidently unacceptable that there are liberated zones and that they be bombarded by Bashar's planes."

Mr. Fabius's comments come amid a strong showing of support from France for the Syrian rebels. France announced Tuesday that it would recognize the new Syrian opposition group – formed over the weekend to unite the disparate rebel and exile groups under a single organization – as the Syrian people's sole representative. And French President François Hollande, who like Mr. Fabius also said recently that the question of arming the rebels would now "have to be necessarily reviewed," is set to meet with the group's leader, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, in Paris on Saturday, according to a second AFP report.

But even with the French push, arms shipments to the rebels look far from imminent.  The Wall Street Journal reports that an EU diplomat speaking anonymously said that while France would likely bring up the arms embargo during a EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on Monday, a European consensus on lifting the ban is a long way off.

The official ... said it would take time for the EU to make any decision on changing the blanket arms embargo, and that some member states would likely take a lot of convincing to do so. Any change would require the agreement of all 27 member states.

"You know some of our member states may have in principle some difficulty in accepting the sheer principle of delivering arms to the opposition. So I will guess we will need to have long discussions before any agreement could be reached," said the official, who chose to remain unnamed.

The US also remains disinclined to arm the rebels, in large part due to fears that weapons could end up in the hands of jihadists – a situation that the US faced in the 1980s, when it armed Afghan militants who went on to form Al Qaeda and the Taliban, reports the Los Angeles Times.

"We have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition," [President] Obama responded to a sole question about Syria in his postelection news conference. "One of the things that we have to be on guard about, particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures, is that we're not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in ... actions that are detrimental to our national security." ...

"One of the questions that we are going to continue to press is making sure that the opposition is committed to a democratic Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria," he said. "The more engaged we are, the more we'll be in a position to make sure ... that we are encouraging the most moderate, thoughtful elements of the opposition that are committed to inclusion, observance of human rights and working cooperatively with us over the long term."

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