LONDON // Britain and France yesterday failed to persuade European Union governments to lift an arms embargo that is preventing a supply of weapons to Syria's rebels.
The deadlock came as protests were held across the country to mark the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising and amid concerns that rebels are struggling to make a breakthrough against a Syrian army supplied by Russia and Iran.
European governments want to support rebels against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad but fear a flow of arms could worsen the bloodshed in a conflict that has already claimed 70,000 lives. Many expressed fears at an EU summit in Brussels yesterday that allowing arms to flow to the opposition could lead to weapons falling into the wrong hands - especially Islamist militants who have become an increasingly powerful force.
EU foreign ministers will now assess the EU arms embargo next week when they meet in Dublin.
French President Francois Hollande, backed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, pressed for the embargo to be lifted, saying Europe could not allow the Syrian people to be massacred.
The coalition "needs to have the means to defend the areas that have been liberated. What he is doing is committing a crime against his own people," Mr Hollande said, referring to Mr Al Assad. "It has been two years of a terrible situation and the number of victims is rising daily."
Mr Cameron said the embargo favoured Mr Al Assad's regime and rejected the argument that weapons could fall into "the wrong hands".
By stepping up their support for the opposition, Britain, along with the US and France and their Gulf allies would be in a better position to "shape the opposition, and to make sure that it is those parts of the opposition that support a democratic and pluralistic Syria … getting our help and getting our assistance", Mr Cameron said.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are widely believed to be providing weapons to the rebels.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a leading opponent of lifting the arms embargo, said there was a danger that Mr Al Assad's allies Russia and Iran could step up arms supplies to his government if the EU lifted its restrictions. Just because Britain and France now wanted to drop the ban, that does not mean 25 other states must follow, she said in Brussels. "That will not be the case." "Others have, with, in my view, very good reasons ... pointed to the fact that Iran and also Russia are only waiting for a signal to export arms [and] that one must also be aware of the fragile situation in Lebanon and what that means for the arming of Hizbollah," she said.
Syria's "intolerable violence" has risen to "point number 1" on the foreign ministers' agenda, Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, said yesterday.
Mr Van Rompuy stressed the EU was keen to "develop common positions" rather than see some countries go it alone, as both Britain and France had suggested in recent days.
France and Britain also argue that the threat of supplying weapons to Syria's rebels might add extra pressure on Mr Al Assad to step down from power and make way for a transitional government that would oversee elections, the political solution western powers are pushing for.
Two weeks ago, Britain and the US announced they were stepping up aid to the Syrian opposition to include non-lethal military aid direct to members of the Free Syrian Army, the loose alliance of armed groups battling the Syrian army.
So far, western powers have stopped short of supplying weapons largely out of fear that they will fall into the hands of groups that will eventually use them against western interests in the region. One of the groups fighting the Syrian military, Jabhat Al Nusra, is considered a terrorist group by the US.
The fractious Syrian opposition has also not helped its cause by failing to convince that political leaders outside the country are in control of armed rebels inside Syria.
Britain and France was at forefront of the military intervention on behalf of Libyan rebels that eventually ended with the overthrow and killing of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Demonstrators took to the streets in towns and cities across the country yesterday, including Damascus, Aleppo and Deraa in the south. "Long Live Syria! Down with Bashar Al Assad!" chanted demonstrators in the village of Harra in Deraa, the cradle of the revolt, activists said.
At least 82 people were killed yesterday, 40 of them civilians, according to a preliminary toll released by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syria's air force bombed rebel bastions near Damascus, as clashes raged in flashpoints across the country, the UK-based organisation said. Regime forces also resumed an assault on parts of third city Homs, pounding the Old City and Khaldiyeh rebel enclaves in the city centre and the Baba Amr district in the south-west. firstname.lastname@example.org
With additional reporting by Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse