Syria does not need weapons – keep the EU arms embargo

For months the British government has been pushing to amend the European Union arms embargo on Syria, in an effort to increase military support for rebels fighting Syria’s Bashir al-Assad government. The proposal to provide weapons to Syrian rebels is back on the agenda. Intense diplomatic pressure has now created a first crack in the embargo, although the details must still be determined.

Last December United Kingdom Europe Minister David Lidington wrote: “Having successfully amended the EU arms embargo (and sanctions package) by setting a three-month renewal period, we will make fresh arguments in support of amending the arms embargo ahead of the March 2013 deadline in a way that offers sufficient flexibility to increase practical support to the Syrian opposition.” To win support from the majority of EU members, who favour continuation of the current embargo, the UK proposed to at least allow for ‘non-lethal‘ items currently banned – such as body armour, chemical detectors and communication equipment.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, asked whether his country would rule out giving weapons to the rebels, said: “We’re not taking any options off the table, we’re not excluding any option given the worsening situation and given that no resolution to it is in sight at the moment.” As a sign of how the embargo could be stretched, The Times newspaper reported that also under consideration was the supply of radar equipment to spot approaching aircraft – and shoot it down.

Diplomatic sources confirmed to The Guardian newspaper that France had avoided the embargo by simply delivering “large sums of cash” to Syria’s armed opposition, which had used it to buy weapons and ammunition. This comes on top of weapons support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to factions battling the troops of Bashar al-Assad. With so many weapons already in the country – including those delivered by long-time Assad allies Russia and Iran – the last thing this terrible conflict needs is more weapons.

Many diplomats and experts have stated that this conflict has no military solution. Any further weaponry would most likely prolong the conflict and reduce the chances of a peaceful outcome. Arming rebel and opposition groups will have unforeseen long-term consequences for Syria and the region. Also, anti-Assad forces are largely an unknown quantity consisting of many different groups, including those of a highly sectarian nature. At this stage, it is impossible to say what power structures will emerge on either side or what form future governing bodies will take.

Like many member states, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton shows strong reservations: “Delivering arms might bring about a new military balance on the ground but it could also fuel further militarisation of the conflict, increase risks of dissemination among extremist groups and of arms proliferation in a post-Assad Syria,” she said, according to an internal paper.

All energy should therefore be focused on bolstering the emergence of a democratic and peaceful Syria while supporting diplomatic, political and other non-violent moves. Military-focused responses undermine efforts to negotiate a solution and to protect civilians. Negotiations involving all relevant parties are the only viable way forward.

And so the EU should maintain the arms embargo on all sides in the conflict in Syria and ensure that no weaponry supplied to third countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is sent on to any faction within Syria. Europe should also put pressure on countries giving military support to anti-Assad militias, overtly or covertly, to end such support and supplies. Similarly, it should pressure Russia and other supplier countries to stop supplying weapons to the Syrian government.

At the same time, European governments should pledge greater resources for humanitarian assistance to refugees and displaced people from Syria. Whatever the future government of Syria might be, Europe should not see its formation as an arms sales opportunity. As Luxembourg’s Deputy Prime Minister Jean Asselborn says: “There are a lot of things lacking in Syria, but not arms. More arms will mean more deaths.”

[FS, 19 Feb 2013]