EU Considers Easing Syria Arms Embargo

EU foreign ministers discuss British, French proposal to allow arming rebels. Critics warn of "devastating consequences".

Ari Soffer ,

Syrian soldiers
Syrian soldiers
AFP file

EU foreign ministers are mulling a proposal by the French and British governments to ease the arms embargo on all parties in the Syrian civil war, to allow weapons transfers to rebel "Free Syrian Army" brigades.

The EU embargo was first imposed in May 2011, applying equally to government and rebel forces, and is set to expire at the end of this month. Critics of the embargo claimed that such an arrangement effectively hands the initiative to the Assad regime, as its allies - including Russia, Iran and Hizbullah - continue to provide weapons, munitions, logistical support and even fighters on the ground regardless of EU restrictions.

In an attempt to address these concerns which has been criticised for not going far enough, in February this year foreign ministers agreed on a somewhat opaque amendment to enable any EU member state to provide "non-lethal" military equipment "for the protection of civilians" or for the opposition forces, "which the Union accepts as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people."

Those in favor of an absolute embargo include Austria, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden. Recently, the Austrian Foreign Minister insisted that the EU preserve its identity as "a peace community by not being involved in such a conflict", highlighting some of the ideological underpinnings of his country's position.

But opposition to arming rebel groups stems at least as much from practical considerations as it does from ideological ones. Pro-embargo voices point out that the "rebels" are not a cohesive movement but a tangle of competing brigades with an array of  loyalties and aspirations, both national and regional, many of which do not align with western interests any more than the Assad regime and its allies.

Plenty of evidence exists to support this position, including the increasing influence of Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood-aligned brigades, and recent reports that al-Qaeda in Iraq has made significant inroads within the Syrian opposition, both directly as well as via its Syrian "Nusra Front" franchise. Gruesome videos of rebel atrocities, including the infamous video of an Islamist fighter "eating the heart" of a dead Syrian Army soldier, have done little to calm fears over what might happen if advanced western weaponry should fall into the wrong hands.

However, those calling for direct western military support to the rebels claim that the influence of Sunni Islamist groups has only occurred precisely as a result of western reluctance to provide support themselves.

After their appeals for help fell on deaf ears in the west, Syrian rebels (who are largely comprised of Sunni Arabs) turned to Sunni Islamist powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar for help. Those states provided weapons and other support in exchange for allegiance, and spawned Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood-aligned units respectively, as a way of fighting their own proxy war against Syria and its Shia Islamist allies in Iran.

The involvement of Turkey - initially seen in some quarters as a "substitute" for direct western involvement in Syria, given its membership in NATO - has further contributed to the influence of Islamist groups. Critics say this is unsurprising given that  Turkey's ruling AKP party is itself an Islamist party.

The argument is that by providing an alternative source of direct military support, western powers can redirect the rebel movement in a more "moderate" direction.

However, supporters of an embargo maintain that whatever the reasons for the proliferation of extremist groups on the ground, it is impossible to control the flow of weaponry to ensure it makes it into "the right hands". Injecting more weapons into the field is therefore a dangerous gamble to take in an increasingly sectarian conflict which has already killed more than 80,000 people.

The humanitarian charity Oxfam has warned of "devastating consequences" if the embargo ends, whilst others have cautioned that such a move could jeopardize a proposed "peace initiative" in Geneva next month.