Noble intentions in Syria may cause more problems than they solve
The decision of European Union foreign ministers to withdraw their arms embargo on Syria this week is a significant gesture in a civil war that has now lasted two years.
The result was ultimately decided by the determination of France and the UK that they could “shift the military balance” in Syria if member states were permitted to supply the Syrian opposition with the right tools for the job.
The original intention behind the arms embargo was to limit the capability of the Assad regime to continue its crackdown against rebel groups in the country. It included restrictions on offensive equipment to Syria, a ban on cargo transfers from European airports, and a commitment from EU member states to police the contents of all suspicious ships or aircraft bound for Syria.
Since February this year, the EU has allowed certain non-military supplies to be transferred to Syrian opposition groups. But with the expiration of the EU arms embargo, member states are now free to transfer military aid to the disparate and fractious Syrian opposition.
Despite the fact that William Hague has assured observers that such aid would only take place through “controlled” measures, critics have pointed out that such action would run the risk of quickly getting out of control. The conflict in Syria has been a two-year long humanitarian tragedy, with little sign of abatement. According to the UN, around 70,000 people have been killed and there exists evidence of the use of chemical weapons.
A conference in Geneva – the second of its kind, sponsored by the US and Russia – is planned for next month.
While the two powers are committed to a government of “mutual consent”, the conflict has served as a theatre of wider geostrategic posturing between the US, Europe, Russia and Iran.
Allowing the EU arms embargo to expire represents two potentially dangerous mistakes. Firstly, William Hague’s assertion is that “there is only a diplomatic solution” to the crisis in Syria. But he and his French counterpart have fostered what will be interpreted in Damascus as a military escalation.
The intention behind the British government’s position was to leave Damascus with no option but to agree to a ceasefire, and commit to fresh rounds of talks. But the assumption that the Assad regime will be forced to the negotiating table solely by the possibility of Western arms flowing into the country is curiously naïve. It is more likely to intensify the regime’s resolve to continue the fighting and, furthermore, encourage the influx of more Russian and Iranian weapons to government hands.
Damascus will likely agree to negotiations without the intention of undermining its own strongholds in the country.
The second, longer-term problem with the British and French position is the nature of the groups they may seek to supply with weapons. The Syrian opposition is far from a homogenous group, and shows little sign of coalescing.
In an ideal world, perhaps a well-armed, homogenous Syrian opposition with its sights on democratic transition, rule of law, human rights and a genuine military strategy for ousting Assad would be in the long-term interests of the country, the EU, and the US.
But the evidence is also clear that Islamist groups are now operating in the country, and policymakers would do well to consider the fate of another Arab state after the removal of the ruling Ba’ath regime. As one example, Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the militant rebel groups in Syria, recently declared its allegiance to the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of Osama bin Laden’s former operational commanders. Accordingly, Hague’s promise of a “controlled” transfer of arms to opposition groups, if it were to occur, speaks to the associated risks within such a move.
History is rich with examples of Western weapons falling into the wrong hands.
Ultimately, therefore, the two dangers within the EU’s abandonment of its arms embargo are, firstly, that the Assad regime’s bluff has been called, potentially to devastating effect; and secondly, that procedurally sound arms transfers will not withstand the chaos engulfing the situation in Syria.
These two problems are contained within a broader frame of diplomacy that pits Western powers directly against Russia and Iran, with the further, real possibility that Israel will feel itself forced to act if further transfers of Russian weapons are concluded.
EU foreign ministers have claimed that there is no immediate intention of arming opposition groups, and other sanctions against the Assad regime remain. These include a freeze on assets and trade sanctions on key commodities such as oil. But the approach adopted by the UK towards the Syria crisis exposes a rather puzzling ignorance of history and of similar strategic scenarios. Even the suggestion of arming opposition groups, and getting drawn into great-power wrangling over civil wars in the Middle East, are strategic missteps that could prove costly.
All eyes will now be fixed on the attempts of the key powers to bring a solution to the crisis.
Luke Chambers is a foreign and security policy analyst based in Glasgow. He graduated with distinction from Oxford University in 2011, and is currently a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy.