Guéhenno: lifting European arms embargo on Syrian rebels ‘backfired’
A British-led effort to lift a European Union arms embargo on Syria succeeded by default on Monday, as a political split between European leaders over the fate of the ban killed off any hopes of extending the embargo’s life. The British government, backed by France, is hoping that the prospect of new arms flows to ...
A British-led effort to lift a European Union arms embargo on Syria succeeded by default on Monday, as a political split between European leaders over the fate of the ban killed off any hopes of extending the embargo’s life. The British government, backed by France, is hoping that the prospect of new arms flows to the Syrian rebels could strengthen the opposition’s negotiating hand on the eve of a major peace conference in Geneva planned for later this month.
But the decision to end the embargo in two months hasn’t resulted in any immediate calls or plans for arming the opposition. Instead, Russia cited the decision today in defending its own move to deliver S-300 air defense missiles, claiming it would deter foreign intervention. "We consider that such steps will restrain some hotheads from the possibility of giving this conflict, or from considering a scenario that would give this conflict, an international character with the participation of external forces," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters, according to Interfax news agency.
Jean Marie Guéhenno, a former French official and under secretary-general for peacekeeping who served as a top advisor to former U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Kofi Annan, said that the decision to block the maintenance of the European arms embargo has merely provided political cover to Russia and other regime supporters to continue its arms sales. Meanwhile, there’s little fresh hope that Western powers will enter the conflict on behalf of the rebels.
"I think it backfired and exposed the weakness of the West, in general," Guéhenno told Turtle Bay. "This issue of arming or not arming is more a bluff than anything else. It’s more about doing something to show you’re doing something than actually doing something. It will be seen by the Russians, who are not fools, as a sign of weakness rather than strength."
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague hailed the decision to ease the barrier to arms shipments to the rebels, however. "We have brought an end to the EU arms embargo on the opposition," he said. "This decision gives us the flexibility in future to respond to a worsening situation or the refusal of the regime to negotiate."
But the decision placed new strains on the European alliance. Austria, the Czech Republic, and Sweden vehemently opposed lifting the arms embargo, fearing it would undermine a U.S. and Russian diplomatic initiative aimed at starting political talks between Damascus and the rebels. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger warned that they likely would pull 300 Austrian peacekeepers out of the Golan Heights, which separates Syrian and Israel forces, if Britain decides to arm the rebels, according to the Guardian.
The move to lift the embargo comes at a time when military support for President Bashar Al-Assad is on the rise, not only from Moscow but from Tehran and Lebanese Shiite militants. On Saturday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that his fighters were committed to wage Assad’s battle to the end. "We will continue to the end of the road," he said, according to Reuters."We accept this responsibility and will accept all sacrifices and expected consequences of this position," he said in a televised speech on Saturday evening. "We will be the ones who bring victory."
In comparison, warnings from the West of possible military action in the future seem to be doing little to deter Assad’s backers. Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that the U.S. decision to co-sponsor, along with Russia, a diplomatic peace conference on Syria later this month, has lessened calls for military action to halt the killing. "Basically, this process kills the whole discussion on intervention, chemical weapons, and R2P [the Responsibility to Protect doctrine]," Hokayem told Turtle Bay.
"Yesterday’s focus on the arms embargo issue at the European Foreign Minister’s meeting was something of a red herring," Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey wrote in a blog post at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The West is, quite simply, ill-equipped to win a proxy arming race if its support for rebels prompts Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to increase their military backing of the regime. And that is exactly what has happened. Russia’s announcement today that it will supply anti-aircraft missiles was entirely predictable."
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Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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