LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) - Britain and France said on Tuesday they did not have to wait until August 1 to arm rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, contradicting European Union officials, but both countries stressed they had no plans to do so yet.
EU governments failed to renew an EU arms embargo on Monday due to differences in opinion, opening the way for Britain and France to supply weapons. But EU officials said the two countries had made a commitment not to do so before August 1.
“I must correct one thing of concern. I know there has been some discussion of some sort of August deadline. That is not the case,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio, adding that Britain was not “excluded” from acting before then, but that it would not act alone if it chose to do so.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said Paris also reserved the right to send arms immediately to Syrian rebels but had no plans to do so.
He said France hoped there would be a breakthrough in finding a political solution over the next two months, but that the EU decision was a political declaration with no legal basis.
When he was asked on Tuesday whether France could also deliver weapons before August 1, he simply said: “Yes”.
“The decision is to lift the embargo and not necessarily a decision to deliver weapons, but after that it will depend on what happens on the ground and on the diplomatic front,” he said. “The decision will be taken at a national level and depending on what the opposition requests.”
Russia Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said earlier the EU’s failure to renew an arms embargo on Syria would undermine the prospects for peace talks that Moscow and Washington are trying to organize.
Britain and France argue that keeping the option of arming the rebels open puts pressure on Assad to negotiate a transition of power at the conference, but critics say the Franco-British approach risks inflaming an already volatile situation.
Both Britain and France said they would need to be very careful if they supplied weapons.
Lalliot said it was clear what weapons the rebels needed.
“We know the types of weapons that the rebellion is asking for: these are weapons to protect civilians against aerial attacks and armored vehicles,” he said.
He said France had already been providing non-lethal weapons and medical aid through components of the Free Syrian Army linked to its commander Salim Idriss and had through this tested how the materials and their usage could be tracked.
“We demanded traceability, whereby they kept us abreast with what they did with the materials and also, for example, with money that was given to them,” he said. “It’s these similar types of assurances that we would like for weapons.”
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas in London, John Irish in Paris, Rex Merrifield and Charlie Dunmore in Brussels; Editing by Alison Williams