UK and France to discuss help for Syria rebels

Leaders to meet at Anglo-French summit over possible military advice to Free Syrian Army as well as separate defence deals

David Cameron and the French president Nicolas Sarkozy are to meet in Paris on Friday to discuss a possible increase in help to Syrian rebels, including giving them military advice.

The meeting, held in the context of the annual Anglo-French summit, will occur the day after Sarkozy is expected formally to declare his intention to run for a second term as French president.

The two leaders are likely to discuss what practical help they can give the Free Syrian Army, and how best to progress ideas for a UN-Arab League peacekeeping force.

A string of defence deals, including for drones, are also due to be announced involving co-operation between BAE Systems and Dassault. Sarkozy is currently badly trailing the French Socialist candidate for president, François Hollande, by 10 points in the polls, and has enlisted the help of the German chancellor Angela Merkel in an effort to gain momentum.

Hollande has said he wanted to woo Britain back into the heart of Europe and sought to reassure the City of London it should not fear his drive for more regulation of the financial world.

“We need Britain to feel part of Europe,” he told British correspondents ahead of a high-profile campaign visit to London next week. But he added France could never have accepted Cameron’s attempt to create a “sanctuary” from financial regulation for the City of London in the new European treaty.

Hollande brushed aside the fears of the political right in London that he would be dangerous for the City. He said he was not “aggressive”, nor seen in France as very leftwing, and his drive to regulate finance was no more than Barack Obama’s keynote speech to Congress.

“You could say Obama and I have the same advisers.” He said his stance on more regulation for the financial sector was in line with “public opinion” in crisis-hit Europe and was similar to all other French presidential contenders, including the rightwing Sarkozy.

Cameron, meanwhile, is not expecting to receive an invitation to join the Sarkozy campaign. He and the French president have been engaged in an on-off war over the handling the euro crisis for six months. Cameron will be accompanied by his pro-European deputy Nick Clegg.

At the weekend, Sarkozy made a populist call for referendums on unemployment rules and the status of foreigners living in France. Ahead of the two leaders last encounter in Brussels, Sarkozy derided Britain for having “no industry”, and relations seemed to reach a new low with Sarkozy urging Cameron to shut up rather than block an EU-wide treaty on the euro.

Cameron appears able to take the president’s leadership style in his stride and his aides say he still regards Sarkozy as a strong contender for the French election in three months’ time.

The two men forged a close relationship in the joint action they took to help liberate Libya from Colonel Gaddafi, but in the case of Syria have been unable to secure United Nations backing for any kind of statement of support for the Free Syrian Army. The Russian decision to oppose any UN intervention in Syria has left Russia, in British eyes, badly isolated among its once close Arab allies.

The UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay has said the security council’s failure to pass a resolution on Syria had emboldened the country’s government to step up its assault on the opposition and launch an “indiscriminate attack” on the besieged city of Homs.

Syria flatly rejected a call by the Arab League to deploy peacekeepers in the country, while William Hague said no western troops could be involved in such a mission. “I don’t see the way forward in Syria as being western boots on the ground in any form, including in any peacekeeping form,” he told reporters.

British officials, including some from No 10, have met some Syrian exiles, and found them disorganised and divided, but that has not deterred Britain from believing support should be provided to Syrian Free Army, possibly of an organisational nature. Britain has ruled out providing arms, or troops but has said it will provide diplomatic help for human rights groups trying to build up a dossier of abuses, and war crimes by the Syrian regime.

A key British argument is simply that there is no worse alternative to President Bashar al-Assad, and Assad has been the source of much that has gone wrong in the Middle East over the past decade.

The bulk of the annual summit, delayed from late last year due to the eurozone crisis, is due to be taken up with forging new formal agreements covering co-operation in civil nuclear research and defence, especially the joint production of drones. But they will also discuss their differing visions of how to make Europe competitive.

They are also likely to discuss the expected pull-out of French troops from Afghanistan. Sarkozy last month committed himself to the return of all France’s combat troops in 2013, a year before Nato plans to end major operations in Afghanistan.

The meeting comes as the two countries not only compete over their differing visions of Europe, but also over commercial contracts. Britain and France are locked in a $20bn (£13bn) race to supply India with 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft. India, to the ssurprise of Britain and its consortium partners, have given the French Dassault Rafale preferred bidder status.

Britain and the rest of the rival Eurofighter consortium are expected submit a revised bid for their Typhoon to India’s medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contest in an attempt to beat the price package put forward for the Rafale.

Gerald Howarth, the minister for international security strategy, said that EADS subsidiary Cassidian, which is handling the Typhoon bid, is examining a “fresh price proposal”.

The Indian decision is a personal blow to Cameron who went to India partly to lobby the Indian government over the contract and hoped UK’s historic links with India might sway the government against the French bid. The case for Anglo-French defence co-operation has long been compelling. The UK and France together account for around 40% of Europe’s combined top-line defence spending; nearly 50% of the equipment budget; and two-thirds of research and technology spending.


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