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Weapons for the Free Syrian Army: An incentive for Assad to negotiate or further oil on the fire?

04/06/2013 16:54 BST | Updated 30/07/2013 10:12 BST
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The UK's foreign secretary William Hague has recently argued in favour of delivering weapons to the Free Syrian Army. Hague gained support from France, but also significant opposition by several of his EU colleagues, most notably from Austria, the Czech Republic and Sweden. Further, Oxfam, among others, has warned that an increase in weapons results in an increase of suffering. Nonetheless, the EU decided not to extend the weapons embargo imposed on Syria.

In addition, Russia has just announced the delivery of anti-aircraft missiles to Assad's regime. These missiles cannot be used against the Free Syrian Army, but against any possible parties that might consider the establishment of a no fly-zone over Syria. The observant follower of the conflict will know who these missiles might be pointed at.

Hague claimed that the mere threat of a weapons delivery to the rebels is a measure that underlines that Assad needs to sit down at the negotiation table.

"It was important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so. Tonight EU nations have done just that ..."

Although no weapons will be delivered before the end of the summer and the EU insists that only weapons shall be delivered that serve the protection of civilians. One wonders what kind of weapon that might be as there are hardly any - if at all - weapons out there that have a pure defensive character. Whether rhetoric needs to be underlined by action remains to be seen.

Weapons for peace?

Austria's Foreign Minister Spindelegger claimed that the EU is a "peace movement and not a war movement". However, what if the delivery of weapons is a game changer that leads to peace?

Assad is aware that a victory by the Free Syrian Army would result in him joining the ranks of other miscreants who bid farewell in recent years. But Assad's forces have gained ground in recent days, thus there is no incentive for his regime to negotiate. Subsequently his rational decision is to fight as long as a victory is tangible as a negotiated outcome would clearly result in an outcome less beneficial for him as a victory.

This raises the inevitable question: How can Assad be persuaded to negotiate? The will of the conflict parties to take part in a negotiation or mediation process emphasizes their sanguinity that an agreement is not only possible, but is also hoped to be less costly than a prolonged conflict.

As long as any party assumes that a prolonged conflict is likely to reap higher benefits than a negotiated outcome, the conflict is highly likely to continue. Thus, a stalemate is the most likely option for negotiations to start.

At the moment the Syrian conflict present itself as a zero-sum game for the conflict parties. Victory or defeat are the only possible options as long as no stalemate is achieved. A strengthening of the Free Syrian Army might lead Assad to reconsider his options, especially if his troops start losing ground. If a victory is not tangible anymore, Assad is likely to weigh up the possible consequences between a negotiated peace agreement and a defeat. Assuming that he is unwilling to risk his life, the former is likely to be his preferred choice.

Consequently, Hague's argument that the delivery of weapons result in a stalemate,which in turn is hoped to lead to negotiations, is valid, but not without dangers.

No guarantees

However, the desired stalemate and the walk to the negotiation table might not even happen in the long run, especially if Russia decides to increases its supply to Assad's regime. Further, a stalemate is not simply based on the quantity or quality of weapons alone. Support among the population and logistics are decisive factors as well. And even if a stalemate exists, there is no guarantee that it will either be perceived as such or remain stable during peace negotiations.

What would be the response if the delivery of weapons does not lead to negotiations? More weapons from the West for the Free Syrian Army? More weapons from Russia for Assad? And who guarantees that only the Free Syrian Army gains access to the weapons and where do they end up after the conflict?

With the benefit of hindsight, we will be able to answer some questions. But whether a weapons delivery to the Free Syrian Army will bring peace - at least in the long run - is doubtful. However, at the moment this seems to be the only incentive to get Assad to the negotiation table.