McCain visit, end of arms embargo signal that West won't let Syrian rebels sink

The EU decision to allow its arms embargo on Syria to expire and US Sen. John McCain's brief meeting with Syrian rebel leaders signal they are not prepared to let the opposition lose.

Razan Shalab AlSham/Syrian Emergency Task Force/via Reuters
Senator John McCain (l.), an outspoken advocate for US military aid to the Syrian opposition, meets with Syrian Emergency Task Force Executive Director Mouaz Moustafa (2nd r.) during a surprise visit to Syria in this May 27, 2013 handout photo.

After pleading with the international community for well over a year to provide weapons and military support, this week the Syrian opposition received two positive signs that the West may be moving closer to granting its wish.

The European Union agreed not to renew its weapons embargo on Syria, opening the door to member states providing arms to the opposition, and US Sen. John McCain traveled inside Syria to meet with opposition leaders. Coming ahead of a US and Russia-backed meeting between government and opposition figures next month, the decision not to renew the embargo may have also been political posturing to indicate to the Syrian government and its backers that the West will not allow the opposition to be defeated.

But while both developments represent significant progress to those hoping to arm the opposition, analysts caution that lifting the EU embargo and Sen. McCain’s visit alone will do little to change the Syrian conflict and Western involvement.

Lifting the EU embargo “is being portrayed as a new sign of resolution by the European Union, as though the European Union has finally decided on a course of action. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. The European Union is so divided that it couldn’t even decide whether to actively lift the sanctions or keep the sanctions going. It resolved to just allow the sanctions to expire,” says Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

The weapons embargo was part of a number of bans and sanctions on Syria that were set to expire on June 1 that required unanimous approval to keep in place. Britain and France insisted on allowing the arms embargo to expire, and EU members agreed in order to keep all the other measures in place.

However, any EU member wishing to supply opposition forces can only provide weapons to groups attached to the Syrian National Coalition, the body recognized by the international community as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Russia, a longtime backer of the Assad government, responded to the EU decision by pledging to deliver anti-aircraft missile to the Syrian government to deter foreign intervention inside Syria.

Upcoming talks

Despite the end of the embargo, no European governments have pledged to send weapons yet. Those considering arming rebels are likely to wait until the end of a US-Russia backed conference in Geneva this June that plans to bring officials from the Syrian government and opposition together for talks.

By all indications the talks are unlikely to produce results. The Syrian opposition remains divided and leaders inside Syria recently criticized rebel leadership abroad. The Syrian government has pledged to attend the Geneva conference “in principle,” and the ambiguity of the Assad government’s commitment has led many to question its interest in the talks.

If the talks fail, which many expect they will given current indicators, violence is likely to intensify as backers of both sides face pressure to provide support.

Push for US support

There is also a growing push in the US to provide military backing for the Syrian opposition. McCain’s visit to Syria follows a bill from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that lays the groundwork for the US to provide weapons to the Syrian opposition. It remains unclear if the full Senate will vote on the bill, but McCain’s visit may indicate that a strong push to move the bill forward is soon to come.

McCain had two meetings with Syrian civilian and military opposition leaders in Gaziantep, a Turkish city near the Syrian border. He then crossed the border into Syria to meet with more opposition officials. The meeting took place in the Bab al-Salama border crossing, less than a half mile inside the country. The trip’s organizers say the senator wanted to travel deeper into the country, but the State Department would not permit him to go any further.

“I think this [is] a major, major step in the right direction. Senator McCain is the highest level US official to go inside Syria since the revolution, he’s also advocated for greater leadership on Syria for a long time. I think that this adds pressure on the administration, it adds pressure to Congress to do something, and it also shows that the Free Syrian Army has a hierarchy,” says Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

According to Mr. Moustafa, members of the Free Syrian Army, including General Salim Idris, who heads the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, assured McCain that they were organized and prepared to receive weapons and additional foreign backing. Addressing concerns that weapons could enter the hands of extremist groups, Gen. Idris offered to log weapons’ serial numbers and return them whenever fighting ends.

“[McCain] wanted to be able to come see the commanders with his own eyes, talk to them about what their needs are so he can make a better case when he comes back to Congress,” says Moustafa.

'Charlie Wilson moment'

Still, McCain and other legislators working to provide American support to Syria face an uphill battle in Washington. Though the US government has offered humanitarian support, President Barack Obama has resisted providing weapons or military intervention.

In the wake of the Iraq War, the Obama administration has pursued policies to reduce American involvement in the Middle East. The emergence of extremist groups in Syria such as Jabhat al-Nusra, whose leaders have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, have created concerns that providing weapons to the opposition could arm groups that endanger American security.

“If he’s not careful, John McCain is going to have his own Charlie Wilson moment,” says Andrew Mumford, author of Proxy Warfare and a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham.

Charles Wilson was a member of the US House of Representatives who was instrumental to a covert American effort to arm Afghan rebel groups during their war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Following the war, many of the groups went on to violently oppose the US.

“Yes, he can be at the forefront of American opposition to Assad and be a high-profile champion of the rebel movement, however, this is a very risky political move for McCain because of the way in which the long-term strategy of a long-term war by proxy is not clear,” says Mumford.

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