European Union leaders, at a summit in Brussels, are expected to debate a French call for the lifting of an embargo so weapons can be provided to insurgents fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
French President Francois Hollande said the regime is not interested in a political solution to the two-year-old conflict and Europe cannot be passive as Syrians are “massacred.”
France says it’s ready to supply weapons to the rebels even if the EU does not lift its embargo, which expires at the end of May.
Britain has also backed lifting the embargo. But other EU governments, including Germany, have resisted the idea.
The EU debate comes as reports say Iran and Russia, the Syrian government’s main remaining international allies, have been continuing to provide arms to the regime.
Within the EU, officials said there are concerns that supplying arms to the rebels might only escalate the war and increase the bloodshed.
There are also concerns that weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist militants who are fighting the regime but may also have an anti-Western agenda.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU needs to “proceed very cautiously” on the question of lifting the embargo.
The Syrian opposition has repeatedly called on the West to provide arms to their forces. But these calls have largely gone unheeded.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already openly arming the rebels. But the United States, which has also called for the Assad regime to leave power, has limited itself to providing only “nonlethal assistance."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to take firm position on the EU embargo debate, saying only that Washington wants to see as “many governments as possible provide appropriate support to the Syrian opposition coalition."
Iran is barred by United Nations sanctions from supplying weapons. But there are allegations Tehran has been covertly moving arms to the Syrian regime via Iraq.
The regime has also been a top customer for Russian weapons. Moscow is a traditional ally of the regime, which provides Russia with its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union, at the port of Tartus on Syria's Mediterranean coast.
The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising erupted in mid-March 2011. More than 1 million Syrians have fled the violence.
Based on reports from AFP and Reuters