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The EU Arms Embargo on Syria Is Not Fit for Purpose

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In August last year, I wrote an op-ed for the International Herald Tribune calling for Western powers to arm the Syrian insurgents. Over six months later, the case is even more compelling than before.

I acknowledge that many of the reservations expressed about the course of action I am advocating are sincere and well-founded. However we face a choice not between good and bad options, but between bad options and worse ones. The selective provision of military support to the insurgents is necessary, from both a humanitarian and a political point of view. From a European perspective, this would require the further modification or scrapping of the EU's arms
embargo on Syria.

The humanitarian case is relatively straightforward. The arms embargo is not saving lives. According to UN estimates, over 70,000 people have been killed, with over a million people fleeing Syria and many more internally displaced. The Assad regime conducts the bombing of cities and indiscriminate slaughter of civilians with impunity. Another year of fighting might see another 100,000 killed.

I appreciate that humanitarian arguments are rarely sufficient in isolation. However I find many of the objections to arm the insurgents deeply unconvincing, whether on humanitarian or political grounds.

Those who argue that we should not supply arms to the insurgency because they might fall into the wrong hands are confused. Arms are being delivered into the 'wrong hands' all the time, and have been for the past two years. The Assad regime is being supplied by Iran and Russia. Jihadist rebel factions are being supplied by donors in the Gulf. In fact, only those that we wish to ultimately prevail - the more moderate rebel forces - run out of ammunition and weaponry
on a regular basis.

One of my great regrets of the Bosnian conflict was the UN global arms embargo on Yugoslavia and its successor states. It consolidated the Bosnian Serbs' overwhelming superiority of arms due to their access to the stockpiles of the Yugoslav National Army, and its effect was to make Bosnian Muslim communities much weaker in the face of the Bosnian Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing. Not only does the Assad regime have a similar imbalance of forces in its favour, those supplying it with weapons are not breaking any rules in doing so.

Fears have also been expressed that supplying arms to the insurgents would strengthen al Qaeda-affiliated groups such as Jabhat al Nusra. Again, this is looking at the conflict through the wrong end of the telescope. Jabhat al Nusra is clearly a rising force within the insurgency, comprising a significant and effective minority that is by no means representative of the rebellion as a whole. But its rise has been encouraged in large part by the failure of Western powers to provide adequate assistance to the broader insurgency.

Since it has attracted a disproportionate level of support relative to the other factions, Jabhat al Nusra's resulting strength and effectiveness has attracted opportunists and true believers alike. It benefits not only from the disillusionment and cynicism bred by the lack of Western support, which feeds conspiracy theories of Western collusion with Assad, but also from the despair engendered by stalemate and seemingly endless suffering. Ominously for Syria's future, its relative success has given it a great deal of legitimacy with the wider population as a consequence.

Neither am I convinced by the alternatives. A full-scale ground invasion is unthinkable. A 'neutral' or humanitarian ground presence would not only be vetoed in the UN Security Council, it would almost certainly fail. The other terrible lesson from Bosnia was that you must never offer protection that you cannot be sure to provide.

It would also be naïve to maintain one's faith in diplomacy as an alternative strategy. Presently configured, the diplomatic process has not worked. Instead, it has provided diplomatic cover for Assad and his international backers. Supplying arms would not mean giving up on diplomacy altogether - on the contrary, without leverage with any party to the conflict Western diplomacy is severely enfeebled. Furthermore, there needs to be a real change of facts on the
ground if anyone (Iran and Russia included) is to convince Assad to step down as part of an orderly transition.

The EU arms embargo is now renewed every three months, not every twelve, and both the UK and France have indicated that they are prepared to take unilateral action if necessary. They are right to have done so. The longer war drags on, the more likely a legitimate struggle for self-determination will descend further into a cycle of communal violence, poisoning the possibility of finding a political settlement acceptable to all Syrians. Without resolution of this kind, both Syrian and regional violence will continue.

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