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 destabilizing 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 for arms supplies to rebels.
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 aim is to have an accord between the 27 and we've seen that positions are moving," a French diplomatic source said.
EU foreign ministers are to meet next informally on March 22 in Ireland and formally a month later. 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 France and Britain 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.
Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, whose country is a fierce critic of Assad and harbors Syrian refugees and rebels, backed Fabius' comments.
"If the international community displayed in a very clear and decisive manner the will to stop the Syrian regime waging war, there would be no need for any kind of arming," he said.
Echoing comments by Russia, which has protected Assad from any U.N. measures, Syria's state news agency SANA said arming rebels would be a "flagrant violation of international law".
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 armored vehicles.
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 [ID:nL6N0C3CGD].
"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," the French source said, adding that it would consequently also affect sanctions targeting Assad's government.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement Berlin was ready to discuss the issue.
"If important partners in the European Union now think the situation has changed and they think this makes it necessary to change the decisions on sanctions, we are of course prepared to discuss this in the EU immediately," he said.
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 militarizing the situation or weapons falling into the wrong hands - are losing their impact," the official said.
(Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch in Ankara, Erika Solomon in Beirut, Adrian Croft in Brussels, and Michelle Martin in Berlin; Editing by Alistair Lyon)