France dials up pressure on US to arm Syrian rebels

France and Britain are pushing the European Union to drop an embargo against arming Syrian rebels. Their push is at odds with with current US policy.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz (2nd r.) is greeted as US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd l.) speaks with an adviser before the start of their meeting at Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, earlier this month. Kerry spoke of the situation in Syria while in Saudi Arabia.

France and Britain announced Thursday that they will seek an emergency lifting of the European Union’s embargo on arming Syria’s rebels – a move that would place new pressure on the Obama administration to drop its opposition to providing anything beyond nonlethal assistance.

France and Britain have emerged as Europe’s two hawks on the Syria war, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius telling French radio Thursday that, “We have to go very fast.” Waiting for the spring to take up the issue of the embargo – set to expire on May 31 – will not be soon enough, he added.

Mr. Fabius said the meeting should take place before the end of March and warned that France could move ahead on its own with arming the rebels even without an EU accord. “France is a sovereign nation,” he said.

Such a move would go beyond the Obama administration policy of providing rebels with assistance but not arms. It could also rekindle criticism from Republican hawks, who say President Obama is forfeiting a leadership role and dooming prospects for American influence in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad is forced out, as looks likely.

Last summer, before Secretary of State John Kerry became Obama’s chief diplomat, he had spoken in favor of providing the rebels with US arms – a position that was also supported by top Obama officials, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Mr. Obama rejected the idea, reportedly concerned that arms could fall into “the wrong hands” – Islamist extremists who are gaining strength and other groups unfriendly to the US. The official US position also holds that more arms will make more violent a civil war that is unlikely to be settled militarily.

Secretary Kerry suggested during stops in Saudi Arabia and Qatar earlier this month that the US does not oppose outside parties providing arms to the rebels to level the playing field. Both countries are assumed to be providing arms to the rebels, and Kerry cited evidence that arms are reaching the “right hands,” which he defined as the moderate forces among Syria’s rebels.

On the same trip, Kerry announced a package of direct assistance to the rebels – including food and medical supplies, but stopping short of arms. That assistance was judged “too little, too late” by some leaders of the Syrian opposition, as well as some Republican critics.

But others worry that the US is on a slippery slope toward arming the rebels – and that might not have a happy ending.

“The history of American assistance to foreign nongovernmental forces is long and sometimes nefarious,” says Paul Londrigan, a political scientist at Pace University in New York.

The US trained and armed the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and now it faces those same forces in the form of the Taliban, he notes.

“Fast forward to today,” Professor Londrigan says, and “once again America is training nongovernmental forces – Syrians in Jordan. And implicitly, America is again allowing others to arm this unknown and unaccountable quantity.” 

“America’s intent should be to bring about a swift end to the human suffering … and foster political reform,” he adds.

France’s Fabius said his push to arm the rebels does not mean France has given up on ending the Syrian conflict diplomatically. On the contrary, he said, arming the rebels could push Mr. Assad to shift from fighting to dialogue. Ground-to-air missiles could dramatically impair the ability of Assad’s air force to attack opposition strongholds, for instance.

“Lifting the embargo,” he said, “is one of the last remaining ways to shift the situation on the political level.”

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