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The European Union failed to renew an arms embargo against war-torn Syria yesterday. While the move was celebrated by those hoping to help arm the Syrian rebels, others fear that removing the obstacles to arming them will complicate work toward a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.
Britain and France were the only EU countries, out of 27, who supported lifting the ban on arming Syrian rebels, which expires Jun. 1. But the arms embargo was wrapped up in a larger bundle of EU sanctions on Syria that required unanimous consent to amend or renew. To renew the other sanctions, the EU members acquiesced to Britain and France's insistence on letting the arms sanctions expire.
Both Paris and London say there are no plans to send weapons “at this stage,” reports Reuters. EU officials said that meant no shipments before Aug. 1.
"While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said yesterday.
Even if Britain and France do supply weapons to Syrian rebels, “they will have to authorize any shipments on a case-by-case basis and follow safeguards to ensure no equipment lands in the wrong hands,” reports Reuters.
The possibility of arming the rebels has been floated in Europe and pushed by many opponents to the current US policy in Syria. Accusations of chemical weapon use and reports of increased violence, including claims of a state-led massacre in western Syria in early May, have caused many in the international community to call for greater intervention.
The response to yesterday’s decision to let the embargo lapse has been mixed. Austria and Sweden were the most vocal opponents, noting that more weapons in Syria would only create more violence and instability in the region. Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger now says Vienna may have to reconsider its deployment of nearly 400 troops on the border of Israel and Syria. WHY?
While Conservative MP Brooks Newmark sent a tweet reading:
EU ending arms embargo to Syrian Opposition will hopefully send powerful signal to Assad to negotiate to end civil war at Geneva 2 #Syria
Russia, a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said the EU’s inability to renew the arms embargo could jeopardize a much-lauded upcoming peace conference co-organized by Russia and the US.
"This does direct damage to the prospects for convening the international conference," Russian news agency Itar-Tass quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying, according to a separate Reuters article reports.
John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart last night in Paris to discuss the conference in the wake of the EU arms announcement, but no update was given, reports Reuters.
Some non-European nations, such as Qatar, have already been providing arms to Syrian rebels, and this month US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hinted at a potential shift in US policy, reports CNN.
"Arming the rebels – that's an option," Mr. Hagel said during a Pentagon news conference in early May. "You look at, and rethink all options. That doesn't mean you do or you will," Hagel said. "These are options that must be considered with partners, with the international community, what is possible, what can help accomplish these objectives."
In late February the United States upped its non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels, for the first time providing support directly to Free Syrian Army fighters. Prior to that it only aided unarmed groups and local councils, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the New York Times notes there is “something curious” about the debate on Syria taking place among US policy makers:
Although the Assad regime has massacred more than 70,000 of its citizens and appears to have violated all norms of warfare by using chemical weapons against civilians, calls for robust intervention are muted.
The legacy of Iraq looms large. A war-weary nation that has sacrificed so much on the battlefields of the Middle East is reluctant to embark on new campaigns. Neither the Obama administration nor its Congressional critics seem to have an appetite for nation-building. And there is a reluctance to admit that half measures like arming the rebels or establishing a no-fly zone are unlikely to end the suffering of the Syrian people in the face of a determined Alawite minority, led by a vicious Mr. Assad, who has no qualms about carrying out ethnic cleansing in a struggle to the death.
But Mr. Takeyh warns that the message the US is sending via such hesitant action may be heard by the likes of Iran, which has long been slapped with sanctions for its suspected nuclear-armament program. If “red lines” are crossed with no intervention in Syria, he posits, could the same go for Iran?
A major American intervention would give [Iran] pause; a reluctant intercession in Syria by a hesitant America would only enhance their resolve.
Paradoxically, an intervention intended to persuade Iran’s leaders of the viability of American red lines could instead convince them that their nuclear program is safe from American retaliation.