Foreign Policy Blogs

Arming the Syrian rebels

AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Is it in the interest of the European Union to arm Syrian rebels? Here is the real question. After almost two years of vicious civil war, over 80,000 deaths and 1,5 million refugees, the EU once again led by Paris and London has received flexibility for actions if needed through eventual shipment of weapons to Syrian rebels.

After over 13 hours of negotiation on May 27, the 27 foreign ministers have agreed on supplying weapons to Syrian rebels and to extend all other sanctions, including visa bans, asset freezes and prohibition on buying oil from regime-linked firms, for one year. Despite the political agreement nobody, mainly Paris and London, will be shipping weapons at this stage to Syria.

The following segment is the official agreement made the Council on May 28th, as published in the latest press release, the Council agreed on the following declaration:

“The Council agreed the following elements on the renewal of the restrictive measures against Syria:

1) At the expiry of the current sanctions regime, the Council will adopt for a period of 12 months restrictive measures in the following fields, as specified in Council Decision2012/739/CFSP:

– Export and import restrictions with the exception of arms and related material and equipment which might be used for internal repression;

– Restrictions on financing of certain enterprises;

– Restrictions on infrastructure projects;

– Restrictions of financial support for trade;

– Financial sector;

– Transport sector;

– Restrictions on admission;

– Freezing of funds and economic resources.

2) With regard to the possible export of arms to Syria, the Council took note of the commitment by Member States to proceed in their national policies as follows:

– the sale, supply, transfer or export of military equipment or of equipment which might be used for internal repression will be for the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces and intended for the protection of civilians;

– Member States shall require adequate safeguards against misuse of authorisations granted, in particular relevant information concerning the end-user and final destination of the delivery;

– Member States shall assess the export licence applications on a case-by-case basis, taking full account of the criteria set out in Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP of 8 December 2008 defining common rules governing control of exports of military technology and equipment.

Member States will not proceed at this stage with the delivery of the equipment mentioned above. The Council will review its position before 1 August 2013 on the basis of a report by the High Representative, after having consulted the UN Secretary General, on the developments related to the US-Russia initiative and on the engagement of the Syrian parties.”

Syria has become a real headache for the West. In the case of the EU, this decision is far from symbolizing unity on the matter. As demonstrated by Gideon Rachman in his latest article there is no such thing than a Western view on the Syrian crisis. Even within the EU several Member States, such as Austria, Czech Republic and Sweden, have raised their concerns. Germany has as well expressed its skepticism. It appears that the most vocal EU member state opposed to this outcome was Austria leading to a clash during the meeting between British foreign secretary, William Hague, and its Austrian counterpart, Michael Spindelegger. Spindelegger went to declare afterwards that the meeting was a failure and criticized the British tactics. His main declaration was that “we [the EU] are a peace community and we would like to stay as a peace community.” Such statement is fascinating as it underlines a fundamental and ideational clash on the role of the EU as a global security actor. On one side, Paris and London want to militarize the EU in order to become a stronger global security actor, while on the other, states like Germany, Austria and so on, are advocating in favor of a more civilian type of power, if one recalls the literature developed by Duchêne and Manners. Despite strong foreign policy division, France and Britain have finally been able to advance their positions at the EU level, arming the rebels. Within the US the divisions are very clear as well: the republican hawks, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are pushing for a no fly-zone and arming the rebels; Secretary of State, John Kerry, is in favor of arming rebels; and US President, Barack Obama, is opposed to arming them and any intervention. In the case of John McCain, he did spend Memorial Day in Syria meeting with rebel leaders. As reported by Politico, his secret trip was organized by Syrian Emergency Task Force, a U.S.-based group that works with the Free Syrian Army.

Der Spiegel

Der Spiegel

However, the EU position to arm the Syrian rebels raises several issues: first, Russia. Since the beginning of the uprising, Moscow has been a fervent ally of the Al-Assad regime. Russia has been sending weapons and military supports to the Syrian government. Not surprisingly Russia has already condemned the EU agreement. Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov argued that “this does direct damage to the prospects for convening the international conference.” He refers to the international conference on peace talks planned for next month in Geneva. It will be interesting to follow how Moscow reacts to the new EU position and see if the peace talks will take place and how successful will they be.

Second, which lucky rebel groups will be receiving weapons and what types of weapons. Even though the U.S. and Turkey support the Franco-British strategy, the control of weapons once they cross the borders will be impossible. Assuring that the weapons, such as modern surface-to-air or anti-tank missile, go directly in the hands of the selected rebels, like the Free Syrian Army, will not be feasible. Paris, London, Washington and Ankara know that. So on the question of the risks of shipping weapons to extremist fighters, William Hague, British foreign secretary, replied

One of the arguments for sending arms is that at the moment the extremists can get weapons, the regime can get weapons, but if you are of moderate opinion, and you are a citizen of Syria, and every weapon that has ever been invented, except nuclear weapons, is being dropped on your town or village, the world has been denying you the means to defend yourself. And that is radicalising people and driving them to extremism.

Berlin has been very concerned about shipping weapons to rebels.  German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle raised the following questions which have been dividing the Union: How can it be guaranteed that the weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands? And would more weapons really help end the war sooner? Paris and London have yet to answer them.

Third, what is the endgame? The endgame ought to be informed by national and/or European interests. No need to underline that Paris and London envision a Syria free of Al-Assad regime. But what would be the direct and indirect costs of a post-Al Assad Syria? Can the West continue to use force – directly or indirectly – when war crimes are committed? Last, what are the interests of the EU and the U.S. in Syria? In case of an eventual fall of the Al-Assad regime, how will Israel and Iran react? The cost of action-in-the-dark – blindfolded actions – may be greater than inaction. The Libyan experiment illustrates such statement. The 2011 mission in Libya opened a pandora’s box, the power vacuum following the fall of the Qaddafi regime has led to a massive shift of power in the region of the Sahel. As a consequence since January 2013, the French troops have been fighting a war in Mali against rebels, tuaregs and radical Islamists. Ultimately the real question is: Can the French and the Brits assume the consequences of a regional power vacuum in a post-Al Assad period? If the answer is no, then the option is quite straightforward.



Maxime H.A. Larivé

Maxime Larivé holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and European Politics from the University of Miami (USA). He is currently working at the EU Center of Excellence at the University of Miami as a Research Associate. His research focus on the questions of the European Union, foreign policy analysis, security studies, and European security and defense policy. Maxime has published several articles in the Journal of European Security, Perceptions, and European Union Miami Analysis as well as World Politics Review.