By Elise Labott
Next week, European Union ministers will meet to discuss lifting the arms embargo on Syria, a move that some countries say could strengthen the hand of moderate members of the opposition and make them less reliant on well-armed extremist elements within their ranks.
Not all of the EU's 27 members agree on the idea. Germany, for one, has voiced concern. And EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has warned it could further inflame the conflict and backfire against the West.
But regardless of the decision, Britain and France seem poised to ignore the ban altogether, arguing that it has, in effect, become a weapon against the members of the Syrian opposition it was meant to protect.
"The European Union arms embargo is now backfiring," one French official said. "Ideally, we'd like the European Union to lift the embargo. But if that doesn't happen, we'd be ready to take our responsibility."
Deciding to flout an EU arms embargo is a bold gesture, one which hasn't been taken militarily since the Bosnian war. But with French headlines dominated by the crisis in the former French colony, public opinion seems squarely on the side of bold action.
France seems slightly ahead of its British partners. While he threatened last week to "go it alone" on Syria, British Prime Minister David Cameron this week has softened his stance to say he wanted tweaks to the EU policy in order to allow the UK to start training Syrian rebels under the auspices of "technical assistance."
But French President Francois Hollande has been much more forceful, saying France was ready to arm the rebels. "We cannot allow a people to be massacred by a regime that for now does not want a political transition," he said this week.
Relations with Paris were once so strained over its opposition to the Iraq war, the George W. Bush White House threw out its stash of Bordeaux wines and started serving "freedom fries." But starting with former President Nicholas Sarkozy, and now with Hollande, it is France that is often drawing the United States into global action.
France took the lead in Libya, with the U.S. providing only the more sophisticated aircraft. In Mali, French troops are battling extremist forces, with the U.S. merely providing airlift. France has been a strong proponent of sanctions against Iran, urging the rest of the members of the P5+1 - the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain and Germany - to hang tough against Tehran. Now, France is prepared to arm the Syrian rebels, a decision that French officials say would be much easier if Washington joins them.
The U.S. has offered tacit support for allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to arm the opposition, even quietly vetting some of the recipients of the weapons. But so far, Washington has been cautious about arming the rebels on its own out of fear the weapons could fall into the hands of jihadists for use against Israel.
Still, some of the arms are falling into the hands of extremists. Those in the EU who support lifting the ban have proposed providing heavy machinery like anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, which could be much easier to track.
In recent weeks, the U.S. has begun to change its tune. The Obama administration announced this month that it would provide direct nonlethal aid to the armed opposition for the first time in the two-year conflict. During a recent trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke openly about U.S. coordination with its Gulf allies on the transfer of weapons and on Tuesday said "the United States does not stand in the way of other countries that made a decision to provide arms, whether it's France or Britain or others."
There is an intense debate within the administration on whether to go even further. Those urging a more robust U.S. involvement say the United States will lose any influence on a post-Assad Syria unless it supports moderate Syrians now.
"There is a debate within the administration," one European official said. "John Kerry, in particular, is doing his best to have a more assertive American position in Syria."
U.S. officials see no indication the White House is ready to arm the rebels anytime soon, but other types of nonlethal aid, such as armored vehicles and body armor, are possible. "Our position is evolving," one senior official said.