France and Britain are ready to arm rebels in Syria, even without full support from the European Union, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said today.
UK Government sources said that no decision has been taken to seek the lifting of the EU arms embargo on Syria, but stressed that "all options" remain on the table.
David Cameron hinted earlier this week that Britain could decide to ignore the arms ban and supply weapons to rebels fighting Bashar Assad's regime, telling MPs that he hoped the EU would act together if it became necessary, but "it's not out of the question we might have to do things in our own way".
Mr Cameron is today travelling to Brussels for a summit with other EU leaders, but Downing Street said Syria was not expected to feature on the agenda. It is understood that Britain wants to see what impact is achieved by the recent move to supply "non-lethal" assistance - including armoured cars, body armour and secure communications equipment - before any further decisions are taken.
Mr Fabius today suggested that London and Paris could ask for a planned meeting in May, to decide whether to lift or extend the arms embargo, to be brought forward, possibly to the end of March.
Speaking to France Info radio, Mr Fabius said that Britain and France are asking "the Europeans now to lift the embargo so that the resistance fighters have the possibility of defending themselves".
If unanimous EU support for lifting the measure is lacking, the French and British governments will decide to deliver weapons, Mr Fabius said, adding that France "is a sovereign nation".
"We must move quickly," he said. "We along with the British will ask for the meeting to be moved up."
Responding to Mr Fabius's remarks, a Foreign Office spokesman said: "Our objective is clear - an end to the violence and a political transition to a more democratic Syria through a political solution.
"As it stands, the political track has little chance of gathering momentum unless the regime feels compelled to come to the negotiating table. They need to feel that the balance on the ground has shifted against them.
"That is why we welcome the EU arms embargo amendment agreed in February on Syria as it sends a strong message to the Assad regime that the political calculations of the international community, including the EU, have shifted and that we are not prepared to rule out any options to bring an end to the suffering of millions of innocent Syrians.
"The Foreign Secretary has been clear he hasn't ruled out any options for the future."