PARIS — Falling in line with Britain, France threatened Thursday to deliver weapons to Syrian rebel groups on its own if the European Union refuses to lift an arms embargo on the embattled Middle Eastern nation.
The warning, from Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, seemed designed to increase pressure on the 27-nation E.U. to change its policy, which is to bar arms deliveries to either side in the two-year-old civil war pitting President Bashar al-Assad against a broad-based rebel movement ranging from army deserters to Islamist extremists.
“We cannot accept that there be this current lack of balance, with on one side Iran and Russia delivering arms to Bashar and on the other rebels who cannot defend themselves,” Fabius said during a France-Info radio interview. “Lifting the embargo is one of the only ways that remain to change the situation politically.”
The rebel command repeatedly has asked for more advanced weapons. It has singled out a need for portable ground-to-air missiles to defend against Syrian jet fighters and helicopter gunships and antitank missiles to fight the T-72 tanks, whose cannon are a potent weapon against lightly armed insurgents.
The various rebel organizations so far have been supplied weapons by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have also provided money and logistical support. The Obama administration, although calling for Assad to step down, so far has refused to help arm the rebels, arguing that any weapons provided could end up in the hands of radical jihadists.
Rebels are known to be in possession of light arms, such as assault rifles, and antitank weapons. The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, quoting participants, reported this week that U.S. trainers are showing rebels how to use the antitank weapons at a camp in Jordan. It was unclear, the magazine said, whether the trainers were U.S. soldiers or contract personnel.
Fabius’s declaration came as the United Nations said that the number of registered Syrian refugees had increased 10 percent in the past week, the Associated Press reported. AP quoted U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres as saying that the average number of Syrians fleeing the country daily rose from 3,000 in December to 8,000 in February.
Fabius’s statement largely echoed a warning issued Tuesday by British Prime Minister David Cameron. Responding to questions from reporters, Cameron said London will abide by the E.U. embargo for now but reserves the right to supply arms independently if other European nations refuse to change their minds in the near future.
“It is not impossible that we’ll proceed the way we see fit,” Cameron declared.
To hasten the E.U. decision, Fabius said, France has asked that the bloc move up the date of a foreign ministers’ meeting that had been planned for the middle of May in Istanbul. One purpose of the meeting would be to review the embargo, which — despite strong urging from Britain — the E.U. foreign ministers decided to maintain at a Feb. 17 meeting in Brussels.
The weapons question also is likely to arise at an E.U. summit Thursday and Friday in Brussels, but the foreign ministers’ gathering is the official forum for revisiting such a decision.
At the last meeting, Britain’s push for lifting the embargo was opposed mainly by northern European nations, including Sweden, Luxembourg and Germany. Their argument was that supplying weapons to the rebels would escalate the civil war, causing more casualties and material damage without changing the course of the struggle, which has killed an estimated 70,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Leaders of the northern European nations have given no sign that they have changed their minds.
“We have just adjusted the European Union’s Syria sanctions after intensive consultation,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in an interview published Thursday in Bremen’s Weser-Kurier newspaper. He said he wanted “to avoid a conflagration that could ignite the whole region.”