PARIS France and Britain want an urgent European Union meeting, possibly this month, to persuade their allies to lift an embargo on supplying arms to the Syrian opposition, France's foreign minister said on Thursday.
The two countries accuse Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of gambling on a military victory, and hope the threat of arming the rebels will force him into talks and a transition of power after a two-year-old conflict that is destabilising the region.
Following Britain's line, Laurent Fabius warned on Thursday that Paris could break with the embargo, which in any case will lapse on May 31 unless all 27 EU states agree to renew it. That could pave the way to allow the supply of arms.
Speaking on France Info radio, Fabius said: "We have to go very fast. The Europeans are supposed to look at this question in several weeks, but we will ask, with the British, for that meeting to be brought forward."
The arms ban is part of a package of EU sanctions on Syria that rolls over every three months. An extension agreed last month expires on May 31. Without unanimous agreement to renew or amend it, the embargo lapses, along with the sanctions.
"The objective is to have an agreement between the 27 and we've seen that positions are moving," a French diplomatic source said. "The feeling we have is that the situation is evolving and that's why the minister is raising the pressure."
EU foreign ministers are to meet in early April. Depending on events in Syria, Paris and London will push for an emergency meeting before then to decide on the embargo, the source said.
Asked on France Info whether Paris and London 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".
French sources say the aim is to have the option to arm the rebels and hope the EU will come to some form of compromise.
After weeks of wrangling last month, Britain pushed for and won EU agreement to relax the embargo to allow non-lethal but quasi-military aid such as body armour and armoured vehicles to be supplied to the rebels.
Britain and France say more must be done but Germany says giving the rebels arms could lead to a proliferation of weapons in the volatile region and spark a proxy war.
"It's a system that is quite brutal," the source said. "There is strong political pressure on the 27 because they will need to go one way or another to adapt, modify or keep the sanctions," he said, adding that it would consequently also affect sanctions targeting Assad's government.
"Two years ago, the objective was to strangle Assad's regime, but we know he has different ways of supplying himself, so the doubt we have is that what we have in place today is enough to strangle him."
A senior French official who spoke on condition of anonymity said anti-aircraft missiles were among weapons that might be supplied to already identified groups of rebel fighters.
"The well-known arguments against arming the rebels - finding a political solution first, not militarising the situation or weapons falling into the wrong hands - are losing their impact," the official said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that arming Syria's opposition would breach international law.
(Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Alistair Lyon)