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What’s the Impact of the EU Lifting its Arms Embargo?

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Syria Deeply’s Beirut correspondent Alison Tahmizian Meuse asks analysts about the effects of the European Union lifting its embargo on weapons to Syrian rebels.

Volker Perthes, director of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs:

The lifting of the embargo will certainly not change things on the ground in the short run. What is more important is what is going to be decided in Washington this week, where discussions will be held about whether to supply lethal equipment to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or take other, more active measures to bring some balance to the situation on the ground in Syria.

Those who wanted the embargo to be lifted have not yet decided whether they want to supply arms yet; they have not identified the groups they would supply them to; and there is a time frame before deliveries would happen. We wouldn’t see any move by France or Britain before August, which gives them time to figure out the political consequences of delivering arms. Other countries made it clear they would not supply arms, but would also not stand in the way.

The lack of unity in the (Syrian) political opposition is a problem, but not a decisive obstacle. If Britain and France or the US decides to send arms, they will try to identify responsible groups within the rebellion and probably not go through the National Coalition.

The agreement among European countries was that it is necessary to create a certain balance between the regime in Damascus and the opposition, and there are different ways to reach that. Arms can be one way to reach a balance in the military struggle, but you can also help create a balance by supporting the reconstruction of rebel-held areas; by supplying medical and humanitarian supplies; and by helping administrations in rebel areas pay salaries.

The general assumption is that Damascus will not negotiate unless there is a certain balance between the parties. It is not unusual in a civil war situation to have international actors sponsor negotiations where the two sides meet in parallel with fighting on the ground. It would be good to put a political logic back in the struggle and not give the impression that decisions can only be reached by military solutions or supremacy in the end.

Nikolaos van Dam, former Dutch ambassador to Iraq and Egypt, and author of “The Struggle for Power in Syria”:

The EU has had ambivalent policy towards Syria from day one. They said that the regime was illegitimate, but they did not contribute to a solution to the conflict. They are still in that stage – not contributing to end conflict but also squabbling over whether or not to send arms. They are supporting the idea of Geneva II on one hand, but if they arm the opposition at the same time, it is contrary to encouraging any negotiations. The British and French really want to send arms. The others will try to convince them that this will prolong the conflict and even make it bloodier.

Whether it will make a difference on the ground depends on what weapons they are going to send and how many. But even if they do send a lot of anti-aircraft weapons, the fighting on the ground will continue. The EU would need other countries to send them through: Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon. Turkey would be the easiest, but perhaps even the Turks are getting cold feet.

Lifting the embargo will not make much difference on the ground militarily speaking, but it will make a difference in the political context. For the opposition, the idea that they will get arms from some EU countries after all means they will be even less inclined to have any political negotiations with the regime.

The US has shifted its policy from not supporting negotiations to agreeing with the Russians to have a peace conference without the precondition that the regime would disappear. The EU officially supports Geneva II, but in the back of their minds they believe the regime must go.

Barah Mikail, Middle East expert at the Madrid-based think tank FRIDE:

Not much has changed from before. France and the UK are still pushing to send arms to Syria while the other 25 member states consider it too dangerous. The division among the political opposition is one of the main concerns for EU member states. If they support the armed opposition, they could end up in an Afghanistan scenario with their weapons turning against them. Dealing with part of the opposition also could have the effect of radicalizing and pushing away the others.

Every EU member state has the freedom to organize what it wants. I would not prevent France and the UK from giving weapons, or facilitate their traffic in order to strengthen the opposition. We have already heard about France and the UK delivering weapons to some armed opponents, and rumors have developed that Spain is allowing some traffic to pass through.

French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius spoke recently about evidence of chemical weapons being used, and I would say it was in order to push EU member states to strengthen the armed opposition. He was also expressing a concern that the situation on the ground was turning to the advantage of the regime. Countries like France and the UK want to support the armed opponents to avoid more defeats.

A month ago, everyone was betting that the Syrian regime would not negotiate with its opponents, and the contrary happened. The regime said they were ready to attend Geneva II, and the opponents said they do not want to negotiate with this regime. Even if it does happen, I don’t see what kind of agreements the sides could reach. The red lines on one side are far from the red lines on the other. As long as the regime is strong on the ground, and the opposition sets the condition of Bashar al-Assad leaving, then it won’t succeed. It is like saying to the regime, we want to kill you, and we want to discuss how we will kill you. I’d say it is better for Geneva II not to happen. It could even deepen the tensions between both sides and widen the gap that exists between the opposition groups.

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