France’s Hollande hints at arming Syrian rebels
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President François Hollande suggested Thursday that France is ready to begin supplying weapons to rebels fighting the Syrian regime, despite concerns that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic militants.
Despite being one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fiercest critics, France has until now resisted arming the rebels, fearing that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist militant elements fighting in the country.
But noting that Russia is supplying arms to the Syrian government, Hollande said France could now begin providing weapons to rebels, “but we will do it in a broader context with a number of countries and in a framework that can be controlled, because we cannot accept that weapons could fall into the hands of jihadists that we have fought against here”.
Paris has so far provided non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels, ranging from bullet-proof vests, night-vision goggles and communications equipment. Its main focus has been helping to structure the Free Syrian Army’s leadership, providing training to rebels in Jordan, and sharing intelligence.
According to British defence consultancy IHS Jane's, up to 10,000 jihadists from all over the world are fighting alongside the rebels in Syria as they try to overthrow the government. However, there are also jihadis who are fighting to replace the Assad regime with an Islamic state.
Rebels ‘caught between a hammer and an anvil’
“On delivering weapons we have always said that we want to control these supplies so that they do indeed go to the Free Syrian Army ... because they represent the Syrian National Coalition that we recognise as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and today they are caught between a hammer and an anvil,” Hollande said.
“The hammer is the air strikes and actions of the Syrian regime and the anvil is radical Islam,” he said.
Hollande was speaking at a news conference in the Malian capital Bamako where he was attending a ceremony to mark the swearing-in of the country’s new president.
The French President has over the past week held meetings in Paris with senior Saudi Arabian and Qatari officials, two countries that already supply weapons to the rebels, and has vowed to increase military support to help change the balance of power on the ground.
The leader of the Free Syrian Army, Salim Idriss, who has called for the international community to provide his forces with heavy weapons, is due in the French capital next week to meet defence and intelligence officials.
Hollande’s comments came the same day as the Syrian government admitted that the civil war in the country has now reached a stalemate.
"Neither the armed opposition nor the regime is capable of defeating the other side," Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil told Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Thursday.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)