French President François Hollande has given EU foreign ministers until end of May to negotiate lifting the bloc’s arms embargo on Syria and give the coalition the weapons it needs to fight the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. But Germany and others have reiterated their reservations, warning of a potential regional escalation of the conflict.
Attempts at finding a political solution to the civil war in Syria have failed, and Europe should “draw the conclusions” and lift the embargo, a hawkish Hollande told a press briefing at the conclusion of a two-day EU summit in Brussels where foreign relations topped the agenda.
"In recent months, no political solution has been found, despite all the attempts […] at the bilateral level or at the [UN] Security Council,” said the French President, who called on Europeans to “change attitude” towards a Franco-British push to lift the arms embargo.
European Council President Herman van Rompuy said leaders had asked their foreign ministers to look at the issue "as a matter of priority" at a March 22-23 meeting in Dublin.
The French President said Assad’s regime continued to receive weapons “from a number of countries including Russia – let’s say it clearly –” and that the coalition should be allowed to "respond to weapons with weapons".
“I will do everything to ensure that, by the end of May at the latest, a common solution can be adopted by the Union,” Hollande said.
Asked whether Paris was ready to take unilateral action in case a European solution cannot be found, Hollande remained evasive but did not rule out resuming deliveries on its own.
“The greatest risk is inaction,” the French President stressed.
Britain was alone in openly supporting the French push, with Prime Minister David Cameron even apparently rowing back from an earlier hawkish stance.
"I am not saying we would like to supply arms to the rebel groups," Cameron said, adding that was a decision that had not yet been taken.
But Cameron too said he hoped that EU foreign ministers could be persuaded by France and Britain, and underlined the sovereign right of the UK to act alone or with France if necessary.
France and Britain found little support for their proposal among other EU leaders, with many expressing fears that weapons fall into the hands of Islamist militants in the rebel ranks and lead Assad's backers to step up arms deliveries to his government.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was particularly cautious, saying the question needed to be considered carefully when Foreign Ministers meet next week.
“We have a number of reservations as regards arms exports to the rebel opposition, because one has to ask oneself if one doesn’t actually fan the flames of that conflict,” Merkel said after the summit.
Iran and Russia “are only waiting for this kind of signal in order to themselves resort to arms exports,” she said. “So it is a very fragile state of affairs and one has to remember what it means for the Middle East as a whole, arming Hezbollah for example.”
Austria pointed out that its UN troops in the Golan Heights were in danger already, Merkel noted, adding: “We think it is legitimate for foreign ministers to look at the pros and cons in a comprehensive way.”
Risk of regional spill-over
Hollande did not deny the risk of a regional spill-over of the Syrian conflict, citing Turkey, Lebanon and risks of terrorism in the wider Middle East.
But he argued that doing nothing held even greater dangers.
"The greatest risk would be to do nothing. The greatest risk would be ‘laisser faire’. The biggest risk would be that Bashar al-Assad continues to massacre his people. And that groups find refuge in terrorism, by despair. The biggest risk is chaos. That's why we must act. "
Responding to fears that the weapons might fall into the wrong hands, Hollande said it was safer for Europe to control its own arms exports than let other countries do it, with fewer safeguards.
The UK's Cameron echoed that sentiment saying: "The problem is not whether the arms will get into the wrong hands – the point is that the arms are already getting into the wrong hands," in reference to those arming the Assad regime.
In comments aimed at soothing Russian concerns, Hollande said lifting the arms embargo was “not intended to sever relations” between Damascus and Moscow and that the post-Assad era “would not be the end of the relationship that this great country has with Syria”.
“We must do everything possible to involve Russia in the political solution.”