France has significantly upped its efforts to unblock Western military support for rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by calling for the European Union to lift its arms embargo in the conflict. In the most emphatic sign yet that Paris intends to get weapons and ammunition flowing to anti-Assad fighters, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius said March 14 that if the E.U. and other international partners fail to heed that call, France may act on its own to bolster rebel fighting capacity.
“The position we’ve taken, with [President] François Hollande, is to demand a lifting the arms embargo… [as] one of the only ways to get the situation moving politically,” Fabius told France Info radio Thursday morning. Asked what France would do if its partners refused that request, Fabius indicated Paris would act unilaterally, reminding listeners that “France is a sovereign nation”.
That push isn’t the first time France has sought to extend aid to Syrian civilians and anti-Assad militias beyond the medical and humanitarian assistance it now provides. During a Jan. 28 conference on Syria in Paris, Fabius warned that continuing to withhold armaments to democratic forces within the Syrian resistance risked seeing large and powerful Islamist members of the anti-government coalition seize control of the country once the conflict ended.
Fabius more recently escalated the tone of that message in a March 13 editorial in the daily Libération by describing what he called a Franco-British initiative. That consisted, Fabius said of seeking to bring a swifter end to the escalating massacre of the civil war by offering military as well as political and moral support to rebel forces. “More than 70,000 dead and a million refugees, the systematic destruction of a country: the second anniversary of the launch of the Syrian revolution is an anniversary of blood and tears,” Fabius wrote Wednesday. “We must convince our partners, particularly in Europe, that we no longer have any other choice than to lift the embargo on arms to benefit the Coalition.”
Fabius said the Franco-British effort to provide lethal assistance to anti-Assad fighters aims to level the playing field in the Syrian war. Rebel forces face a formally trained—albeit increasingly weak and discouraged—Syrian army that continues to receive arms and ammunition from Damascus’ allies like Russia and Iran. Insurgents, by contrast, have seen their fighting capacity significantly limited by the international arms embargo. Arms they command have largely been supplied by regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both of whom are competing for influence in an anticipated post-Assad Syria.
The thinking of Fabius and France in leading the offense against the embargo is clear. Providing arms to insurgents will not only allow them to topple the regime faster, but also leave rebels more indebted to Paris and other Western capitals following eventual victory. Meantime, by controlling which militant groups Western arms reach, Paris and London also aim to leave pro-democracy allies in Syria better armed once the conflict ends—and able to quash the kind of power-plays that Islamists have staged in Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Many Western countries and EU partners—primarily Germany—reject the notion of providing arms to Syria. Those capitals warn that flooding the Syrian civil war with even more weapons will only increase the scope of slaughter. In the face of such caution, Fabius on March 12 called for a lifting of the ban “now,” and suggested France may begin sending military aid to Syrian rebels by the end of the month—with or without EU approval.
But military calculation and geo-political jockeying are only part of the French motive to hasten an end to Syrian fighting. As TIME was first to report last August, French intelligence services have identified young radicals leaving France to join Islamist units in what they consider a jihad to impose Islamist rule in Syria. That initial trickle of perhaps half a dozen people has significantly risen over time, as scenes of maiming, mutilation, and mass slaughter by Assad forces have been used as recruiting propaganda and visual stimulants for budding extremists in France.
“The flow has been significant and troubling—and that’s only the people we know [who] have gotten to Syria,” says a French intelligence official, who says others have doubtless joined the fighting via Turkey undetected by blending in with the thousands of French tourists who visit that country every month. “The logic is pretty obvious. The longer the conflict goes on, the more radicals from France and elsewhere in Europe will flock to it—and eventually back from it. The longer and more intense the violence there is, the better-trained and more ruthless the returning jihadis will be. We’re all better off for it to be done as quickly as possible, and with the right forces in control.”
(MORE: As Syrian Conflict Rages, France Examines Potential Terrorism Risks)