Is U.S. leading on Syria, or being led by France?
A Syrian rebel crosses a street while trying to dodge sniper fire in the old city of Aleppo in northern Syria on March 11, 2013.
March 20th, 2013
10:23 AM ET

Is U.S. leading on Syria, or being led by France?

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.

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Lhghjkuh Kuhtfgh

    IRANS CAPITAL MUST BE ROUTED THROUGH THE ASSAD REGIME SERVING AS A WOULD ECCONOMIC HUB LACED WITH ALTERNATING SPOKES LAYED OUT IN ALTERNATING YING & FASHION TO A RIM CONSTRUCTED OF ACTORS INCLUDING PRIVET CITIZENS RICH AND POOR MILLITARYS MALITIAS AND ARMS DEALERS AND PURCHASERS ALL CATAGORIES THINK WHEEL OF FORTUNE MEETS GAME ON A WHEEL WITH BREAK OFF SIDE GAMES OF PROVERBIAL MONOPOLY WHEN THE WHEEL SHIFTS TO A WEAKENED SPOT THE WHOLE STRUCTURE SUPPORTS AND BALLANCES ITSELF BY DESIGN
    THE NEXT ACTOR STEPS UP TO PICK UP THE SLACK

    March 24, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  2. Jfghjvj Hjvn

    UK & FRANCE UNDERSTANDS MUSLIM MIGRATION...EXPLAIN.

    March 22, 2013 at 11:10 am | Reply
  3. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    March 21, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  4. Brulluhman

    That Ashton and that Guy Verhofstadt are completely nuts inviting al qaeda over for coffee. We didn't vote for them.

    March 21, 2013 at 7:58 am | Reply
  5. Brulluhman

    NATO shouldn't be involved. It's evil SFA (some jihadists, muslim brotherhood, al qaeda cells etc) vs evil Assad. Let them have some fun over there shooting each other. There's another benefit. The longer that war takes, the more jihadists in Europe will go there to fight. After they're there, they're not allowed to come back. And we got rid of them. France, Britain, USA.. what ever NATO country. LEAVE THEM!! Saves us money, we're getting rid of them. The only thing the West should do, is checking who is going there to fight, so those jihadists will never set one foot in a Western country ever again.

    March 21, 2013 at 7:53 am | Reply
  6. JesterJames

    Hey...they aren't killing each other fast enough... let's throw in more guns.

    March 20, 2013 at 11:11 pm | Reply
  7. Kjhfhtf Hhgfxghj

    s Y R I A is as Old as DiRT

    March 20, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Reply
    • ttt

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      May 13, 2013 at 11:53 pm | Reply
  8. Kjhfhtf Hhgfxghj

    are you all good boys and girls

    March 20, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Reply
  9. Kjhfhtf Hhgfxghj

    certianly you don't want to be sin free

    March 20, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Reply
  10. Kjhfhtf Hhgfxghj

    why is talking so god damn scary for people who hold swords

    March 20, 2013 at 9:46 pm | Reply
  11. Kjhfhtf Hhgfxghj

    Why is talking More Dangerious then the sword why can't people Talk

    March 20, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  12. Kjhfhtf Hhgfxghj

    SURGE or don't tHink or can't what's so rightious about the sword

    March 20, 2013 at 9:43 pm | Reply
  13. Kjhfhtf Hhgfxghj

    who put the tEr0Rorists in

    March 20, 2013 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  14. Kjhfhtf Hhgfxghj

    ())(LOtS of NaMe cAlling aLL of a Sudden)y(...

    March 20, 2013 at 9:29 pm | Reply
    • ttt

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      Xiamen Mutual Prosperity (MP) Trading Co., Ltd.
      At MP ,we're changing the way you think about the lighting.
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      MP ideas:Tolerance, integrity ,thanksgiving,responsibility. We are always trying our best to realize the new commercial civilization.

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      May 13, 2013 at 11:54 pm | Reply
  15. MarkH

    France and Britain... Go figure, the two countries that basically have Muslims trying to push them out of their own cities and still hasn't learned the lesson that they aren't friends of anyone but other Muslims and even then they have to be the right kind of Muslim.

    March 20, 2013 at 7:44 pm | Reply
    • Joseph S

      Obviously you don't know or care about Britain and France past Muslims are not trying to push them out long they have allowed for Muslim migration Britain and France more so France has extensive colonial ties to that region .

      March 21, 2013 at 1:11 am | Reply
  16. desert voice

    After more than 70 thousand dead, Russia and China ought to be asked by the UN Security Council if they still intend to continue this carnage! If they do, heavy economic sanctions must be imposed upon them!

    March 20, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Reply
    • thetruthandnothingbutthetruth

      What they ought to be asking do they support the Al Qaeda FSA and their terrorism against the Syrian people. Russia and China have real Syrian interest in mind not furthering Al Qaeda like the west has done in Libya, Mali, Egypt, and Tunisia... You want to protect Al Qaeda you pick up a weapon and fight for the FSA, coward.

      March 20, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  17. Ghrllty Hhryj

    )()(@...)
    M I L IT A R Y S P E N D I N G H A S I S & W I L L G O U P D E S P I T E T H E P R O p A G a N d A I T I S A L L R E A D Y W R I T T E N T H A T B E I N G S A I D A a E R I C a n t S A R E B E I N G D E S T R O Y E D B Y T H E M I L I T A R Y S S T A N D I N G A G E N C Y S– R I G H T N O W– A L S O T H E f O U N d I N g D o C U m E n T S S E E M T O B E L O S T–p R O p A G A N d A I N U S I S H I G H E R T H A N I T H A S E V E R B E E N –A N D s Y R I A H A S N O T H I N G T O D O W I T H I T...(...@)

    March 20, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Reply
    • diana horton

      what kind of writing do you call that? if you want to post a comment please use spacing. this makes you look like a stupid ass.

      March 20, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  18. jhrtyuhryj

    CENSORSHIP IS BIGTIME

    March 20, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  19. non-aligned voter

    Stay out of Syeria – Pull all troops from Af-gag-a-stan and let Karzai deal with the Taliban. Why do we need so many troops in Europe? Let the other NATO ecounteries hold up their end of the deal. We should not be the policeman of the world.

    March 20, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Reply
  20. diana horton

    there is just to much going on for the u.s. to try to help this one or that one. with all the cuts we have to take how can
    they give money to support all of this. we need to to start taking care of our well being. we must build our own defence
    to make sure we can defend ourselfs. i think it is only a matter of time before nukes are used on someone. we need to make our own country strong. now is not the time for cuts to the armed forces.

    March 20, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  21. hftujhftyu

    HAS ANYONE HERD FROM THE POPE THAT QUIT BECAUSE LIFE IS HARD

    March 20, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  22. hftujhftyu

    WHAT IF THE MILITARY DOES NOT WANT TO DO SOMETHING AND THEY SHUT DOWN SHOP FOR THE NEXT 60 YEARS INCLUDING ALL OF THEIR STANDING AGENCYS BEING SHUTERED

    March 20, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  23. hftujhftyu

    SO YOU ARE SAYING THAT THE MILITARY RUNS CONGRESS AND THEY WANT TO SABOTAGE THE US AND ITS CITIZENS BECAUSE THE MILITARY IS JUDGE AND WHAT IMAGINARY COUNTRY DO YOU LIVE IN LET ME QUESS AGE GROUP 18-35 BUT ONLY THE FIRST 18 YEARS IN THE US

    March 20, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  24. Matt

    It is possible to perhaps gain some influence, it more than likely probably too late. That was the problem when the established FSA was patched over last year, it is one thing to offer weapons and aid. But it is who controls the infrastructure and are the handlers. I don't regret the opposition being able to defend themselves or the influx of fighters to help them. The problem is that the rebels are winning and will be acquiring the weapons that where prevented to them. Air power is still a problem but they have artillery, tanks, a few MANPADS etc. So many brigades are now self sufficient. They are some of the groups that become more radical. Like Dempsey said now know less that a year ago which is less when the FSA was formed by military defectors and secular at the start. So instead of help they got an arms embargo and left to be slaughtered. The only alternative was light weapons and disposable soldiers, until they could become self sufficient. The Arabs did that and not send any game changing weapons to them. Never underestimate what religion, man and AK -47, RPG is capable of. Even with such limited support Assad was going to be up against it.

    Now people are complaining about the WMD's, and game changing weapons, Hizbullah is stronger, he who had influence would in the endgame shape what happened with Hizbullah and in Lebanon, the WMD;s and game changing weapons. And that is not the US. The Arabs were always going to what they did and this was always going to be the outcome. Neutral and staying out of includes influencing policy. If this was a Tom Tom that many wrong turns you would be on Mars.

    Anyway the US wants to go home and regroup, of course there is always troubles in the world and you always keep something left in reserve. However if you push too far and the US buckles, it is bad for the US but it will fatal for you.

    The chemical weapon attack is a false flag provocation, not involving the regime or the opposition, Syria is in that much of a mess. Hence the Russian stance. It could be a foreign government, cowardly Syrian commanders looking for a way out, to afraid to defect or confront the regime. Either way it is bad news for Assad.

    If Congress wants to send the US to war in Syria, that is what will happen. But they can't make the Pentagon win.

    March 20, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  25. Areyoucrazy

    Crazy Jihadi nut jobs. Let them wipe each other out!!!!!!

    March 20, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  26. saeed

    usa is lying chemical weapons what a lie chemical weapons kill 1000s of people not 20 persons but usa has lied now for 100 years so it well just keep lying for another 100 years. usa is a irish half breed potato farmer country from dublin so the are stupid and have a iq of a loffe sadly this stupidety is genetical and there is nothing to do about it.

    March 20, 2013 at 11:33 am | Reply
    • Adam4321

      Saeed
      It is a well known fact that middleast as a region has one of the lowest IQ in the world.

      March 20, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  27. billy schleppegrell

    PLEASE do not get "sucked in" to another futile war

    March 20, 2013 at 11:32 am | Reply
  28. George Patton-2

    The U.S., Great Britain and France usually act in collusion. All three want to take over the Middle East and conquering Syria by proxy is but another step in that direction!

    March 20, 2013 at 11:21 am | Reply
  29. rthujgdssdgh

    US...BUT... ect. ect ect...ITS ALL ABOUT THE SYRIAN PEOPLES RIGHT TO LIBERTY... & FREEDOM FROM THE BUTCHER (ANY)...ect ect ect.

    March 20, 2013 at 10:49 am | Reply

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