EU rejects Britain and France's appeal to let them arm Syrian rebels

European leaders block call to lift embargo on supplying weapons to opposition

Britain and France found themselves isolated today after their call to lift an embargo on supplying weapons to Syrian rebels was rejected by EU leaders, who are fearful of sparking an arms race with Russia and escalating a conflict which has already left 70,000 people dead.

France's President Francois Hollande went into the EU summit yesterday calling on his fellow leaders to lift the embargo before it expires in May. David Cameron's office said they wanted to use the two-year anniversary of the uprising today to prod other nations into stepping up assistance.

But at meetings today, Germany, Austria, Sweden and other nations disagreed. “One has to ask if it doesn't fan the flames of the conflict,“ said Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel. “What is important is to act together as Europeans, just the fact that two have changed their minds is not enough for 25 to follow suit.”

Ms Merkel added that the EU foreign policy chief – Catherine Ashton, a Labour peer – had also spoken out against putting weapons in the hands of the opposition. “Lady Ashton said Iran and Russia were looking for the development to resume arms exports to (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad,” the chancellor said.

Russia has stood by Assad throughout the conflict and continues to ship weapons to the regime, despite pleas from Europe and the United States to use their clout to force Assad to negotiate.

One diplomat struggled to come up with the names of any countries that backed Mr Hollande and Mr Cameron's proposals: “There are many member states that have reservations,” the diplomat said.

Speaking after the meetings, the Prime Minister said that there was a “good understanding” among other EU members of the urgency of finding a solution to the bloodshed in Syria. He said the discussions would continue at an EU foreign ministers meeting later this month.

The arms embargo was relaxed last month to allow for non lethal assistance to be channelled to the rebels. It still forbids the provision of guns, and France and Britain have argued that this is creating an imbalance as arms flow from Russia and Iran to regime forces. The embargo is up for renewal on 31 May, so if Mr Cameron and Mr Hollande do not manage to cobble together support for amending it, they could simply vote against renewing the measures. This, however, could mean a whole package of sanctions against the regime would also expire.

Asked if he would act without Europe's support, Mr Cameron said Britain was a sovereign country that would act “in our national interests“.

The debate comes as Syrians marked two years since the uprising began in the town of Deraa. Rebels vowed attacks to mark the day, and regime forces beefed up security in the capital, Damascus.

Louay Almokdad, a political coordinator for the Free Syrian Army, urged Britain and France to keep pushing to provide the rebels with anti-aircraft weapons, anti-tank missiles and logistical support.

“At the moment, we don’t have enough to create a safe zone for civilians in the north,” he said. “We have given all the guarantees they want. The weapons would be under trained officers and they would not go to any extremist groups.”