France wants to review EU ban on arming Syria rebels
PARIS (Reuters) - France will discuss supplying arms to Syrian opposition forces with its European partners in the coming weeks now that an opposition coalition has been established, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday.
France is wary of militarising the 20-month-old conflict, but is also reluctant to leave areas under opposition control unprotected against attacks by President Bashar al-Assad's forces, Fabius told RTL radio.
"At the moment there is an embargo on arms, so no weapons are being delivered from Europe. The question will undoubtedly be raised for defensive weapons but it's something we can only do in coordination with the rest of Europe," Fabius said.
On Tuesday France hailed the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces "as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and as future government of a democratic Syria" - the first Western power to go that far.
The coalition is supposed to be a more inclusive grouping of opposition voices than previous incarnations, with closer links to rebels inside Syria.
Fabius said Paris was talking to Moscow and United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, as it waited for the Syrian coalition to form a provisional government in the weeks ahead that could open the door to supplying arms.
"We want to avoid going towards militarisation. On the other hand we must prevent liberated zones from being destroyed. We must find a fair balance," Fabius said.
A senior European Union official said ahead of a November 19 meeting of the bloc's foreign and defence ministers that there had to be unanimity among member states for changes in sanctions to be applied.
"No such proposition will be examined yet. We are at the beginning of the process," the official said. He added that there were huge practical difficulties in selectively lifting the arms embargo.
The embargo expires on December 1, but there is already a decision in principle to extended it for 12 more months, an EU spokeswoman said.
France, one of Assad's harshest critics, has thus far ruled out sending weapons, concerned they could get into the hands of radical Islamists, but the coalition is urging European states to allow it access to arms.
President Francois Hollande will meet the coalition's leaders in Paris on Saturday, including its chief, Mouaz Alkhatib and Georges Sabra, head of the Syrian National Council which makes up a third of the coalition's members.
Before meeting Hollande, Alkhatib will travel to London on Friday to take part in a meeting of coalition representatives and countries to consider further political and non-lethal practical support to the group.
Britain said on November 8 that it wanted to put "everything on the table" in looking at ways of dealing with the Syria conflict, and did not rule out looking again at the arms embargo.
A French diplomatic source said Paris had suspended delivering financial and humanitarian assistance directly to safe havens in Syria and would discuss on Friday how that help could be transferred to the coalition.
"If we miss the opportunity to support this restructuring of the Syrian opposition, we can't shed crocodile tears afterwards saying it's descending into chaos," the source said. "We have a collective responsibility to keep this alive and support it."
Speaking in Paris, German Foreign Minister Guido Westwerwelle said he supported the new coalition, but that it still had to undertake several steps before acquiring legitimacy.
"There are three critical criteria. It needs a clear declaration in favour of democracy, a commitment for a state that abides by the rule of law and a commitment to communal and religious plurality," he said.
(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer, Sebastian Moffett in Brussels and Mohammed Abbas in London; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Robin Pomeroy)
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