Syria crisis: France and Britain move a step closer to arming rebels

François Hollande appeals to Europe to lift arms embargo at Brussels summit

Francois Hollande


The French president, François Hollande, who will force the Syrian situation on to the agenda at the EU summit. Photograph: Thierry Charlier/AFP/Getty Images

France and Britain have moved a step closer to arming the opposition to the Assad regime in a radical move aimed at tipping the balance in the two-year civil war while also ignoring European policy on Syria.

The French president, François Hollande, went into an EU summit in Brussels with a dramatic appeal for Europe to join Paris and London in lifting a European arms embargo, but the sudden policy shift was certain to run into stiff German opposition.

“We want the Europeans to lift the embargo,” said Hollande. “Britain and France are agreed on this option … France has to first persuade its European partners. But France also has to accept its responsibilities. We can’t allow a people to be massacred by a regime which has shown that it doesn’t want a political discussion.”

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, called for the EU embargo to be abandoned, declaring that France and Britain would act in concert, as they did in going to war against Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya when Germany joined Russia and China at the UN security council in voting against.

William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, and David Cameron have this week spoken of the need for reviewing the EU arms embargo. British officials argue that they will not be “constrained” by the embargo. “The arms embargo prevents us from helping the moderates [in Syria],” said an official. “The regime is getting help. The extremists are getting help. The moderates are not.”

But British officials also stressed no decision had been taken to arm the Syrian opposition.

Fabius went further, accusing Iran and Russia of arming Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while the resistance went defenceless. “We can’t accept this current imbalance with on the one hand Iran and Russia supplying arms to Bashar and on the other the rebels who can’t defend themselves,” Fabius told French radio.

Two weeks ago, EU foreign ministers tightened the sanctions on Assad, at British insistence, and made it possible to bypass the ban on “non-lethal” supplies to the opposition. The sanctions policy can be reviewed at three-month intervals. Fabius said the embargo should be lifted now. “The position that we are taking, which is also the same as that of the British, is to demand that the Europeans lift the embargo now so that the rebels have the ability to defend themselves.”

Reports in France spoke of supplying ground-to-air missiles to the opposition to try to counter the regime’s air superiority in the war.

Germany and other countries such as Austria and Sweden are likely to maintain their opposition to arming the rebels, leaving common EU foreign policymaking in shreds and the EU sanctions policy a dead letter.

Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, said the French demands could be “discussed” but did not sound keen to push for a concerted European position on arms supplies. “We changed the European sanctions on Syria two weeks ago,” he said. “If important EU partners now see a different situation requiring in their view the sanctions decisions to be changed again, we are of course prepared to discuss that immediately.”

Fabius said the UK and French positions on arming the opposition were “identical” and it was one of the few levers left for having any outside political impact on the war in Syria.

Syria had not been on the agenda for the Brussels summit, but Hollande made clear he would force it on to the table.

He said he and Cameron shared the same position “because we believe that a people is in danger today. More than 100,000 [are] dead since the start of the uprising. Now we have to give the Syrian opposition the means finally to gain the upper hand, that is the departure of Bashar al-Assad.”




Rebel war crimes

Amnesty has warned the international community that arming Syrian rebels risks fuelling an increase in war crimes unless the rebels can demonstrate a commitment to stamping out growing abuses.

Cilina Nasser, Amnesty’s researcher who documented a rise in violations by rebels in today’s new report, urged countries like Britain to assess the human rights risks of arming the rebels.

Speaking to the Guardian she said: “Any state that is considering supplying arms to the armed opposition should be very careful. They should carry out a human rights risk assessment.”

The report called for a monitoring system to ensure that any weapons supplied from outside Syria should not be used to carry out abuses such as summary executions.

Nasser said: “We call on the all the opposition groups to take immediate action to stop human rights abuses. The uprising began by the people in Syria to stop human rights violations committed by the regime. It is very disappointing to see that opposition groups are committing horrible crimes as well.”

She also expressed her dismay at the failure of rebel groups to respect a code of conduct on human rights that many signed up to last year.

Unfortunately I have testimonies from FSA [Free Syrian Army] commanders who told me that since the Syrian government started using air strikes armed opposition groups started to increase their practice of summary killings against captured soldiers, because they felt they would slow them down while retreating. This is a war crime.

Nasser said Amnesty was “very worried” by the increase in war crimes committed by rebels.

A relief worker in the Damascus suburb of Douma told Nasser that in July 2011 summary killings were occurring at the rate of once a fortnight. But then the killings began to mount.

Month after month it started increasing. By July 2012 he was collecting three to four bodies, every day, of people subjected to summary killings, by the opposition.

She said Amnesty’s findings were based on interviews with those inside and outside Syria, as well as analysis of videos, and the testimony of relatives.

Nasser said it was difficult to establish for sure whether the increase in abuses had coincided with an increase in sectarianism. Minority groups in Syria were reluctant to talk to international groups like Amnesty, she said.

She also noted that the scale of abuses committed by government forces were much greater.

Air strikes against civilian areas by the government remained the biggest killer in the conflict, she said. But rebel groups had also used “indiscriminate” weapons against civilian areas.




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