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France suggests EU link easing Syria arms embargo to peace talks

A member of the Free Syrian Army holds his rifle as he sits on a sofa in Deir al-Zor May 12, 2013. Picture taken May 12, 2013. REUTERS/Khali
A member of the Free Syrian Army holds his rifle as he sits on a sofa in Deir al-Zor May 12, 2013. Picture taken May 12, 2013. REUTERS/Khali

By Adrian Croft

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France is floating a proposal that the European Union ease an arms embargo for Syrian rebels but delay acting on the decision to intensify pressure on Damascus to negotiate an end to Syria's civil war, a French diplomat said on Wednesday.

Sweden, Austria and some other EU member states are resisting efforts by France and Britain to modify the ban to strengthen rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The embargo is part of a package of EU sanctions on Syria that expires on June 1. EU foreign ministers will discuss the issue on May 27 and it could come up at an EU summit on May 22.

The French diplomat's suggestion that the arms embargo could be linked to the outcome of a new initiative from the United States and Russia for a diplomatic solution in Syria appears designed to win support for the French-British proposal.

It would effectively introduce a brake on the lifting of the arms embargo, allowing for it to take effect only if the proposed peace conference in Geneva next month fails.

"Strengthening the hand of the opposition is not contradictory to holding talks," the French diplomat said, briefing reporters on condition he was not further identified.

"There are always questions about the time frame. We could take a decision at the end of May - if we take a decision - with its implementation deferred depending on what happens or what doesn't happen in Geneva," he said.

"We've always said that the goal was a political solution, but (that) a political solution depended to a large degree on what happened on the ground," the diplomat said.

The U.S.-Russian peace drive is based on a deal announced in Geneva in June 2012 for the creation of a transitional Syrian government "with full executive authority by mutual consent".

That wording left unresolved the question of any future role for Assad and the agreement was never implemented.

Britain argues that lifting the arms embargo for rebels would strengthen the "moderate" opposition and ensure the EU could respond to any Syrian government use of chemical weapons.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said on Tuesday he opposed the idea on the grounds that more weapons would only fan the fighting and might snuff out chances for peace talks.

Neither France nor Britain has decided whether to go ahead and arm rebel factions, with Paris saying it first wants to see what impact the threat of doing so has on Assad.

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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