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RUBIN: On Syria, French taking the lead

BRUSSELS, Belgium

France and Britain are pressing the European Union to end its embargo on arms for the Syrian opposition, in the hope that they can encourage President Barack Obama to follow their lead.

French and British leaders' frustration with U.S. waffling on Syria was palpable in Brussels last week. As the flood of refugees from Syria grew to tsunami levels, threatening to destabilize much of the region, French President Francois Hollande declared bluntly, "The biggest risk is inaction."

Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington won't stand in the way of its allies' moves to arm the opposition, but the administration still refuses to provide mainstream Syrian rebel groups with weapons — even as radical Islamists obtain money and guns.

The French make a convincing case that this position should be rethought.

"We believe there will only be a way out when the military situation on the ground changes," said the French Foreign Ministry's director of policy planning, Justin Vaisse, at the Brussels Forum, an annual conference organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Vaisse said the current European Union embargo on arms for the rebels was backfiring. Regime forces get weapons from Iran and Russia, while the moderate opposition often lacks bullets. The regime can bomb and shell Syrian civilians with impunity, with more than 70,000 Syrians dead so far.

"The arms embargo is now backfiring," Vaisse said emphatically. "The playing field is not level. The opposition is fighting with hands tied behind back.

"This is why Great Britain and France will ask for an end to the (EU) embargo when it expires at the end of May."


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