Divided EU lets Syrian arms ban lapse. What will it change?

The EU's agreement to not renew its embargo against sending arms to Syria belies divisions among members over how to handle the country's ongoing civil war.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague arrives at an European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels Monday. The ministers agreed let the EU's arms embargo on Syria expire on Jun. 1, despite broad disagreement among EU members over how to handle the civil war.

After months of debate over whether European countries should begin arming the rebels of the conflict in Syria, foreign ministers of the European Union agreed to let its arms embargo expire.

But the move belies deep divides in Europe over what to do about the Syrian civil war, as some fear that it will do little to change the conflict and could even hinder a US-Russian initiative to broker peace.

The statement issued by the EU declares that member states will assess their arms exports on a “case-by-case basis” and that countries “will not proceed at this stage” with arms shipments. The position will be reviewed before Aug. 1, giving space to the peace talks expected next month.

Europe has opposed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the beginning of the civil war and put restrictions on his regime, including a series of economic sanctions that were set to expire at the end of this month. On Monday the EU foreign ministers extended them all, but allowed the arms embargo to expire. Each country would decide whether to export arms or not.

No consensus

The move has been hailed by many as a must-do in the face of escalating violence and as a unified message from the EU to Mr. Assad. But behind the statement, there was no consensus among the 27-member states.

Britain and France have pushed the hardest to end the embargo, arguing that in doing so they help level the playing field in the conflict as well as force Assad to negotiate.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said the decision Monday was “important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so.”

Many countries in Europe, including Austria, the Czech Republic, and Sweden, have been opposed to sending arms, citing concerns about fueling an arms race and that weapons could fall into the wrong hands – the same line the US has been arguing.

"The EU should hold the line. We are a peace movement and not a war movement," Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said, according to the BBC.

On Tuesday, Russia called the EU's move counterproductive to the peace process that is underway and, in response, said it was looking into giving the Syrian government more high-powered missiles. US Secretary of State John Kerry met in Paris Monday with his Russian counterpart to prepare for talks planned for next month.

Effects

Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, a European defense analyst at the Thomas More Institute in Paris, says that the support of Russia and Iran to the Assad regime has forced more action by the Western world. “The conflict is escalating and becoming more and more dangerous,” he says.

Daniel Keohane, head of strategic affairs in the Brussels office of the Spanish think tank FRIDE, says that six months ago the countries within the EU were nowhere close to the decision announced Monday. It’s an important statement, he says, “to show that Europeans are united against the Assad regime.”

But the impact of Monday’s decision depends on the specific response of Britain and France. “There is no real and strong European consensus," Dr. Mongrenier says. "The decision to go forward will depend upon a coalition of like-minded countries.”

At least initially, the European decision changes “nothing in actual terms,” says Yves Boyer, assistant director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris and a defense and international relations expert. "They decided to lift [the embargo] but they will do nothing [before Aug. 1] in the pretext of the peace conference,” he says.

But even after Aug. 1, Dr. Boyer says that because there are already so many arms flowing into Syria, and so many disparate factions, between civil actors and international players using Syria as a proxy, the impact will be minimal. “I think Europeans have very little leverage in the many dynamics of the conflict.”

Daniel Levy, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, says that the priority should not be on the arms question, but on putting EU weight behind the peace process. The agreement, which was hailed by the Syrian opposition, could give France and Britain some “purchase in their engagement with the opposition,” he says.

But the accord – to let an embargo expire but not act immediately – is such a weak offer that it probably does little to change the situation.

Or as Boyer puts it: “It’s a zero sum game.”

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