World and Nation

To aid Syria rebels, France urges end to arms embargo

BRUSSELS — France, joining Britain, is urging its European Union partners to meet this month and end an arms embargo on Syria, to allow weapons to be sent to the opposition there.

“We want Europeans to lift the arms embargo,” President Francois Hollande of France told reporters as he arrived in Brussels for an EU summit meeting.

Echoing earlier comments by his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, Hollande said: “We are ready to support the rebellion, so we are ready to go this far. We must take our responsibilities.”

Hollande said that Britain and France were in agreement. “We cannot allow a people to be massacred by a regime that for now does not want a political transition,” he said. The EU pact on the embargo and on sanctions against Syria must be renewed every three months. France is moving for the next review to be held this month, rather than in May.

“We have to go very fast,” Fabius said, urging that the union try to shift the balance of forces in Syria in favor of the opposition before many thousands more people die.

The rebels are clamoring for anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons. A European supply line could alter the dynamics of the two-year-old Syrian civil war, which is believed to have cost the lives of 70,000 people, without ending the Assad family’s decades of rule. French and British officials have said that only once the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, understands that he is losing the battle will he agree to negotiate a political resolution with the opposition. And there is a sense that the Syrian army is beginning to erode, offering a greater opportunity for change.

In February, the embargo was renewed despite British concerns, with Germany and Sweden especially arguing against escalating the civil war. But Britain did win agreement to relax the embargo to allow nonlethal but quasi-military aid, like armored vehicles. The issue is likely to come up in Brussels at the two-day meeting of EU leaders, but their focus will be on the economy.

Hollande met separately with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain before the summit meeting to discuss the Syria embargo, British officials said. The arms embargo is backfiring, one of the officials said. “It doesn’t stop those aiding Assad; it does stop EU countries and others helping those against whom Assad is waging a brutal and terrorizing war,” the official said.

Fabius warned that France and Britain might act unilaterally if their European partners disagreed. Asked on France Info radio whether the two would arm the opposition if there was no agreement, Fabius said only that France was “a sovereign state” and that the two countries would jointly act “to lift the embargo.”