Arming Syria’s rebels is a red herring

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Yesterday’s focus on the arms embargo issue at the European Foreign Minister’s meeting was something of a red herring. Despite the decision to drop the embargo, there are no plans to consider arming for at least two months, while any eventual arming will be extremely limited and subject to export license and other restrictions that apply to conflict situations. Any weapons flow will also be severely constrained by domestic political caution driven by fears of potential blowback. Given that the impact of such arming will therefore be relatively minor, the meeting was akin to a very public discussion of how best to bluff a weak hand in a poker match – not a good idea.

The West is, quite simply, ill-equipped to win a proxy arming race if its support for rebels prompts Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to increase their military backing of the regime. And that is exactly what has happened. Russia's announcement today that it will supply anti-aircraft missiles was entirely predictable, and indeed predicted in our report – Syria: the imperative of de-escalation, published last week. The procedures of Western states are simply more transparent, cumbersome, restricted by regulations, prone to diplomatic opposition (from allies such as Israel), or domestic political fall-out than those of countries backing Assad.

The only argument of note now emanating from British and French officials is the suggestion that arming the rebels represents the best means of getting the opposition (and their regional allies) to come to the table for Geneva II, and also of putting pressure on Assad to do likewise - integrating the logic of arming with the logic of the peace conference. While this quest for leverage is understandable given the difficulties that the West has had in persuading rebel forces to take part in a political process, it is ill-advised.

Rebels currently unwilling to engage in negotiations with the regime (distinct from accepting the regime’s political surrender, which they are prepared to do) are even less likely to do so once they receive Western armed support. The opposition’s strategy has long been to secure Western military intervention as the key means of dislodging Assad – “getting Western skin in the game.” Armed support from the West is therefore likely to embolden their ambitions of total victory, mitigating against reaching a point of mutual exhaustion, a key potential asset in the search for a deal-making space. Add to that the danger of mission creep.

There are other, good reasons to not go down the arming path:

  • It is unrealistic to expect that weapons can be guaranteed to end up in the hands of pro-Western actors. 
     
  • Within Syria, more arms will further entrench the political economy of war, already breeding warlordism, war profiteering, criminalisation, and intimidation as a way of life. 
     
  • Pro-opposition armed escalation is likely to be met with similar regime escalation; Assad has not yet unleashed the full might of his military firepower.
     
  • There is a real danger that these weapons could find their way into sectarian tensions in Lebanon and Iraq, supplying oxygen for the outbreak of an arc of sectarian conflict across the Levant.
     
  • The weapons may even find themselves being used against targets in the West.

Given their statements of support for a political process, EU Foreign Ministers should therefore have focused instead on how to promote the proposed Geneva II initiative. Geneva II will not be a panacea; at best it will begin a slow process that will require determination in the face of repeated setbacks. But, restoring a role for politics - providing a forum and putting pressure on the sides to talk even as they continue to fight – sets in motion a different dynamic; crucially, it could legitimise the idea of the political, breaking that taboo. Geneva II will force the regime to confront a different dilemma and challenge to that of the battlefield: it will have to sit down with the opposition, and to present a negotiating position and negotiating team.

Europe would do better to spend its time looking at how to get the Assad government's allies – in Moscow, Tehran and elsewhere – on board for de-escalation and peace talks and in convincing its own friends in the region and the opposition to take Geneva II seriously, than announcing that it will again discuss providing arms in two months time.

Click here to read "Syria: the imperative of de-escalation" by Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy 

Click here to listen to an audio podcast with Julien about the need for de-escalation in Syria 

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