The European Union controversy whether or not to lift the embargo on supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition is on the agenda again at the EU foreign ministers meeting 22-23 March in Dublin. The current Syria embargo was amended last month and is due for review in May, but France wants it to be renegotiated now. When all member states agree, the lifting of the embargo “can be a question of days” according to French foreign minister Fabius. Vote on the embargo needs unanimity, and diplomatic activity is frantic on the issue. France, home to a large Syrian migrant population, is in favour of lifting the embargo, together with the United Kingdom. So far, Germany, Sweden and a few other countries are opposed, but Germany is said to be ‘ready to talk’.
The disastrous situation in Syria and the continued – mostly Russian – military support for Assad – meeting no legal obstacles because a UN arms embargo is lacking – increases public sympathy for supplying rebel fighter with weapons. People commemorate Bosnia or even Rwanda as examples of where ‘the world stood by while people were slaughtered’. These comparisons however are extreme simplifications and don’t make much sense. Every situation is unique. The Syrian case is very complex; The opposition is heavily divided and includes extremist groups. There is little on which the armed opposition groups agree, apart from the fact that they want to get rid of Assad. Last weeks the London IISS think tank pointed at the risk of destabilization of the country, whether the conflict is ended soon or not. To send arms into such a situation would be completely irresponsible.
The embargo has been softened already. In February the French and the Brits managed to get the embargo text amended so as to “allow for the provision of non-lethal equipment and technical assistance for the protection of civilians” to the Free Syrian Army. This equipment and assistance includes armoured cars, body armour, military communication equipment and training. That this military support will only be used for the protection of civilians and not for the launch of attacks by the Syrian rebels is unlikely. Or does anybody seriously believe that the body armour will be distributed to civilians under fire?
It is always interesting to see how a hard-won compromise is presented in the media. The Irish presidency of the EU hastens to stress that the softening is “not a lifting of the arms embargo, nor a relaxation of it”. Then what is it? A senior EU official said that there has always been a humanitarian exception in the embargo text and that now “each member state decides how they use this humanitarian exception”. So apparently we must consider this military support as humanitarian. EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also stresses that there was never talk of arms. Military equipment and assistance not arms? It is semantics.
But the ‘humanitarian exception’ is not enough for France and the U.K. They continue to urge for a complete lifting of the arms embargo for the Syrian opposition and they play it hard. Both countries have threatened to ignore the arms embargo altogether if other countries do not agree with lifting it. With that unprecedented move they would undermine the whole idea of the EU arms export policy. They would also undermines the concept that states do not arm non-state actors, as the Russians rightly although hypocritically point out.
Worst of all, this debate is keeping the EU from what it should really do to help the Syrian population: working together with Russia and Iran on getting all parties to the negotiation table. If we are serious about peace in Syria, we should help its inhabitants find common ground. However urgent the need for a solution, and however difficult negotiations will be: for a conflict as complex as the Syrian, no military victory of any armed party will lead to a quick-fix for this divided society.