European Council on Foreign Relations

A false debate about arming Syria’s rebels

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Europe is increasingly divided between those in favour of arming Syrian rebels and those against it. However, notwithstanding the broader uncertainty over the merits or not of providing military support (I am against), it could be argued that, for European actors, this is an entirely false debate.
Put simply, even if Europe decides to end the embargo in May and provide lethal aid, its assistance will remain so limited that it will be irrelevant to shifting the balance of power on the ground or Assad’s mindset. Europe’s inherent caution and risk aversion on the issue means that weapons supplied will inevitably be extremely limited in capability, aimed at avoiding the dangers associated with them falling into the wrong hands or being turned on regional allies. However, given the regime’s considerable ongoing military strength, any meaningful support for an armed approach necessitates providing weapons that will bring down fighter jets and inflict damage on heavy artillery positions, all of which Europe is unlikely to provide even if it consents to the provision of some lethal aid. And, as such, nor will this aid be sufficiently attractive to empower moderates over radicals – another, albeit unlikely, ambition in London and Paris, the prime supporters of European armed support.
In such a context, it is worth asking whether European policy makers should be focusing their attention on an approach where they will remain a marginal player whatever the decision they take in May, particularly as other international actors are already providing substantial lethal aid. Europe’s capital in the Syria conflict is already slim at best, but when deployed it should be surely done in areas where it is actually willing to commit to making a meaningful difference.
This is not to argue here against arming the rebels (though we will do so in a forthcoming memo where we will make the case for far more active – and less zero-sum – diplomacy that draws in all the key actors, particularly Iran, as still being the best means of eventual de-escalation), but simply to state that any potential European military contribution is likely to have little to no impact on the ground.


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