Tuesday, May 28, 2013

EU arms embargo for Syria ends

To be precise, the EU foreign ministers did not agree to end the embargo against arming any of the parties in the Syrian civil war (as implied by this New York Times headline).  But they failed to come to agreement about extending it.  So the EU-wide embargo has now expired, leaving individual countries free to make their own decisions.

This might turn out to be a big deal, and it might not.  Meanwhile, it does look like a potentially significant event, and one that exposes serious disagreements between different western governments about how to respond to the Syrian crisis.
BRUSSELS — Divisions among European Union foreign ministers on Monday prevented the renewal of the arms embargo on Syria, raising the possibility of a new flow of weapons to rebels fighting to bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“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 and worsen,” William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said after more than 12 hours of stormy talks.

In a declaration, the European Union said member states that might wish to send weapons to Syrian rebels “shall assess the export license applications on a case-by-case basis” in line with the organization’s rules on exports of military technology and equipment.

The ministers did agree to renew all the economic sanctions already in place against the Syrian government.

But efforts to ease the arms embargo, led by Britain, exposed deep rifts on Monday over the issue of arming the rebels. [....]

Austria, the Czech Republic and Sweden came to the meeting strongly opposing arms shipments. They distrust large parts of the Syrian opposition and said they feared that the weapons would end up in the hands of jihadist groups.

France supported Britain in seeking to ease the embargo, but had called for a wider consensus. [....]
Concerns about jihadist elements among the rebels can't simply be dismissed. On the other hand, the perverse result of the present situation is that one side in the civil war, the Assad regime, is being heavily armed, supplied, reinforced, and otherwise supported by Russia and Iran and Lebanon's Hizbullah, while the most poisonous Sunni-jihadist tendencies on the rebel side have their own outside sources of support and reinforcements ... and the less extremist tendencies within the opposition are starved for arms and supplies.

So there are genuine dilemmas there. However, other arguments against lifting the embargo, which got predictably recycled during this conference, are absurd and dishonest.
There were also fears that Russia, which already sends arms to the Syrian government, would feel freer to send more.  [....]
In the real world, there is not the slightest sign that Russia doesn't already feel "free" to send as many arms to Syria as it thinks are necessary to help keep the Assad regime in power. In so far as there are prudential restraints on the quantity and quality of weapons it is willing to supply, the EU embargo hardly counts as a significant factor.
"I’m glad at the end of the day we were able to have a sanctions regime for all the other sanctions that were in place," Frans Timmermans, the Dutch foreign minister, said after the meeting.

Mr. Timmermans said none of the union’s member nations, including his own, intended to ship arms to the Syrian rebels immediately. But he warned that lifting the arms embargo could lead Russia to step up its arms shipments to the Assad government.

"The only effect you could have — let’s be realistic about this — is that it will stimulate the Russians to provide even more arms,” he said.
I'm groping for the right word with which to describe this pseudo-"realistic" argument, and I guess the best word would be "stupid". This is reminiscent of the fatuous arguments used to defend the policy of so-called "non-intervention" by outsiders during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. In practice, the result was that the Spanish Republic got no help from the western democracies, while the Franco forces got massive amounts of arms, supplies, military reinforcements, and other assistance from the Axis powers (only partly counterbalanced by assistance to the Republicans from the Soviet Union, which had its own unfortunate implications). A one-sided arms embargo simply favors the side whose foreign patrons ignore it.

If the Russians had been participating in an embargo against arming the pro-Assad forces in Syria, or even pretending to respect such an embargo, concerns like the ones expressed by Timmermans might almost make sense. But the Russians haven't been doing anything of the sort.

Even Timmermans must have realized how stupid he sounded, because he went on to add:
"But they’ve been providing so many arms that I’m sure even more will not make much of a difference."
=> As I said, the expiration of the EU embargo might or might not turn out to have significant practical consequences in the medium or long term. The US government appears to be internally conflicted about its Syrian policy and deeply reluctant to get involved, even indirectly. (That reluctance is certainly understandable, whether or not one thinks it is ultimately wise.)  As long as that remains true, hypothetical actions by some European countries probably won't alter the situation in any decisive ways. But stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub