EU and Syrian arms embargo: Poorly crafted logic

The arms supply policy by EU, if materialized, may lead to a regional conflagration in the Middle East. Source: Reuters

The arms supply policy by EU, if materialized, may lead to a regional conflagration in the Middle East. Source: Reuters

The lifting of the arms embargo on Syrian rebels will further aid the protracted nature of the conflict as it will be more perceived as a proxy war between powers.

Early this week the European Union in its meeting in Brussels decided not to renew the arms embargo against the opposition forces in Syria, letting the door open for supplying arms to disparate rebel groups against the Assad regime. The arguments made by the proponents of this policy mainly veered around strengthening the position of the opposition forces at the proposed peace conference, scheduled to take place in the next month. Led by UK and France, the two leading players in Europe, the lifting of embargo will have numerous implications for the proposed peace conference.

The Syrian National Council, the group consisting of variegated opposition forces, while expressing deepest gratitude to the EU for lifting embargo has asked it to translate the words into actions. It urged the EU to supply specialized weaponry to fight the Assad forces. As UK and France, at present, are circumspect in openly declaring that they will supply arms to rebels soon, it is not yet clear how the lifting of embargo will help the peace process. Or even in the context of putting pressure on Assad, and its supporters, it is not yet clear how lifting of the embargo will put pressure on them particularly during the peace conference, which is in a limbo. There also appears a paradox. Though the rebels’ exasperation in seeking arms is visible, the lifting of arms embargo will not help them in acquiring new weapons as UK and France, the two major advocates of this policy, have refused to commit themselves to supplying arms to the rebels ‘at this stage’.

Lifting of arms embargo not only weakens the prospects of any success of dialogue next month, but also minimizes the role that the United Nations can play in the peace process. Austria has declared that it will withdraw its peacekeepers, about 300 deployed under the auspices of the UN peacekeeping mission, in Golan Heights once the rebels are supplied with arms. Early this month the rebels had kidnapped Filipino peacekeepers deployed in Golan Heights as part of UN peace keeping forces, though they were released after negotiations. The lack of coordination among the members of the UN Security Council, despite common agreement that Syria is turning into a ground of extremist violence, has further protracted the conflict.

The lifting of arms embargo will further aid this protracted nature of the conflict as it will be more perceived as a proxy war between powers and will belie the effort in developing a common agenda for the conference. The lifting of the embargo will certainly embolden the rebels. The rebels are still deliberating in Istanbul whether they will participate in the conference. Turkey has gradually taken a harder position by arguing that any failure of peace conference will imply end of diplomatic process and a necessary ground to provide arms to rebels. 1 August has been marked as the deadline after which the countries UK and France would consider supplying arms to the rebels, though the UK has been mulling over the idea of supplying arms before that date if the situation as per its calculation demands such a step.

The contours of peace process have not been clear, and perhaps will not be clear unless the major stakeholders sit together and prepare the agenda. That has been difficult so far. The agenda seems to be influenced by sectarian and geopolitical factors. Saudi Arabia has strongly opposed the involvement of Iran in the conference and threatened to boycott it if Iran takes part. Saudi Arabia’s major concern is not Iran’s nuclear program but Iran’s sectarian difference. Any such sectarian politics will plague prospects of peace. While Russia has supported the idea of Iran’s participation, France has opposed it. It is difficult to explain why Saudi Arabia, particularly in the context of Syrian crisis, can be a player in the peace conference, not Iran. If Iran has supported the Assad regime, Saudi Arabia has supported the rebels.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov have criticized the recent development. Lavrov termed the EU decision ‘illegitimate’ as it is not based on international law. Rybakov termed the decision as a reflection of ‘double standard’ as it is crafted in a time when there are talks about the peace process. He stated, “You cannot declare the wish to stop the bloodshed, on one hand, and continue to pump armaments into Syria.” Russia has reiterated to fulfill its commitments to Iran including supply of S-300 surface-to-air missiles as a ‘stabilizing factor’. Israel has expressed concern at it and covertly threatened to target Syria in case of supply of the missiles to Assad regime.

The arms supply policy by EU, if materialized, may lead to a regional conflagration in the Middle East.  The scope of violence and devastation will be much larger than that of Libya. Syria is located in a sectarian fault line with Sunni and Shia powers flexing their muscles while drawing international powers to their sides. Any bigger war than the current one will not only entangle the whole Middle East, but also may witness the devastating impact of chemical weapons.

What is about the prospect of the UN-led peace conference, for which the UN officials including the mediator Lakhdar Brahimi have been active to give it a concrete shape? The EU decision to lift embargo does not help the peace process. It is not the issue of whether Assad will remain in power or will be deposed from power, but whether there will be at all peace if the medley of weapons continue dance of death in Syria. Assad is not the larger concern for Syria, but whether violence will stop in the country and whether innocent civilians will not continue to die by forces of Assad and rebels. The supply of weapons will not achieve any such purpose. The goal – peace in Syria without Assad in power – cannot be achieved by emboldening the rebel spirit. It is undoubtedly necessary to bring Assad, along with rebel forces, to dialogue table and develop a common framework towards peaceful power transition in Syria. It is, however, dubitable whether the lifting of arms embargo will pressurize Assad, as intended by UK and France, to abide by the rebel terms or further embolden him to stick to rigid positions. Understandably a difficult situation, but the EU decision can at best be termed unhelpful or ill timed, and at worst an aid towards further protracting the conflict. 

Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is an Indian commentator. His areas of interests include conflict, terrorism, peace and development, Kashmir, South Asia, and strategic aspects of Eurasian politics.

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