EU foreign ministers to consider Syrian arms embargo

Meeting in Dublin today will discuss lifting weapons ban


European foreign ministers will discuss lifting the EU embargo on weapons transfers to Syria at an informal meeting in Dublin today and tomorrow.

Divisions among the 27 over the wisdom or folly of arming Syrian insurgents have been compared to the EU’s paralysis during the Bosnian war in the 1990s. Syria is a bleak reminder that the goal of a common foreign policy, enshrined in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, continues to elude Europe.

The weapons ban was to have come up for renewal at the end of May, but Paris and London say that’s too long to wait. Events this week showed how volatile the conflict has become. On Monday, Syria bombed a village in Lebanon for the first time in the two-year-old conflict. On Tuesday, the insurgents and Bashar al-Assad’s regime accused each other of using chemical weapons, a charge UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon yesterday agreed to investigate. US president Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would trigger US intervention.

Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Denmark fear lifting the embargo would incite Iran and Russia to escalate military assistance to Assad, and would saturate Syria with weapons that could fall into dangerous hands. Ireland has sided with the more reticent EU members.

Last month, the British foreign secretary William Hague persuaded his EU colleagues to soften the arms embargo to allow the transfer of “non-lethal” weapons such as night-vision equipment and body armour to the rebels. The February agreement gave the Europeans wide latitude to interact with the rebels.

France and Britain have now made it clear they intend to arm the rebels – preferably with the EU’s blessing, but without it if necessary. The Journal du Dimanche reported that the French foreign and defence ministries and intelligence services are already preparing shipments of light weapons, ground-to-air and anti-tank missiles. Slovenia is the only other EU country to openly support lifting the embargo, though Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are reportedly leaning towards the Franco-British position that it is immoral to leave the opposition defenceless.

Assad digs in
Since it started two years ago, the war in Syria has killed more than 70,000 people, created more than a million refugees and displaced 2.5 million within Syria. Last year, western governments believed Assad was about to fall. Now, diplomats say, no one expects him to be dislodged in the foreseeable future. “There’s a widespread view that he’s taken comfort from the fact he’s survived this long,” says a European ambassador. “He believes he has a viable future in Syria.”

Paris and London put forward two main arguments for arming the rebels, who hold the northwest of the country, along with pockets around Deir-ez-Zor to the east, and Deraa in the south. Insurgent areas are under near constant bombardment from government forces. The war is stalemated, and unless the military balance is altered, the French and British argue, anarchy will spread and the death toll will continue to rise.

This view was expressed by Admiral James Stavridis, the commander of US European Command, at a senate hearing in Washington this week. Adm Stavridis said it was his opinion that arming the opposition “would be helpful in breaking the deadlock”.

US involvement
The US has allowed its Gulf Arab allies to deliver heavy weapons to the rebels, and US officers are helping to select and train the insurgents using them. At the same time, there are concerns that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are allowing weapons to fall into the hands of fundamentalist Sunnis. The CIA has set up a special cell to keep extremists in Syria under surveillance, with a view to assassinating them later, according to the Los Angeles Times .

France was the first country to recognise the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) when it was created last November. At the instigation of France and Britain, the group finally named a prime minister on Tuesday, a US-trained businessman who enjoys the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. But humanitarian aid groups on the ground in Syria say the SNC’s writ runs nowhere, and that the rebels are divided into hundreds of factions.

By delivering weapons to the Free Syrian Army, the French and British argue, they will dissuade fighters from joining jihadi groups and strengthen the more moderate SNC in the battle for power after Assad’s departure.

The EU foreign ministers who convene in Dublin to discuss Syria today will find they have no good options. Some think they should have helped the rebels sooner; others point to missed diplomatic opportunities. The worst case scenario, of a dysfunctional, anarchical Syria, a haven to extremists, that sucks the region into a sectarian conflagration, looms ever larger.

l An explosion at a mosque in the Syrian capital Damascus yesterday killed at least 42 people, including a senior pro-government Muslim cleric, and wounded 84, said the Syrian health ministry.

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