Security implications of the EU arms ban repeal against Syrian rebels

EU members now have the option to arm Syrian rebels, which puts pressure on Assad and gives Obama the opportunity to build a coalition. Photo: William Hague (L) speaks with Jean Asselborn (C) and Michael Spindelegger on May 27, 2013 in Brussels (AFP/File, Georges Gobet)

NEW YORK, June 1, 2013 – The European Union ban on providing arms to the Syrian rebels expired yesterday. Lifting the arms embargo is not only a failure of the institution to present a unified military policy regarding the civil war in Syria, but could also prove to be an advantage to US President Barack Obama and a pressure point to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from office.

The termination of the EU arms embargo was not a deliberate political decision. Instead, it was a byproduct of a lack of consensus among foreign ministers to extend the ban. European foreign ministers on Monday could not agree on the policy after a 13-hour debate to renew the weapons embargo, therefore it expired yesterday. This lapses permits individual member states to decide individually whether to arm rebels.

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The member states were able to agree to continue financial and economic sanctions against the Assad regime, but those measures are unlikely to impact the civil war. If all 27 member states decide to arm the rebels, it would demonstrate a European foreign policy of one voice, a strategic vision and massive influence.

Assad would feel significant political and economic pressure to transition from power. Alternatively, it only takes a few European countries to provided significant military support to shift the balance of power between opposition groups and Assad who has the military backing of Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.  Britain and France who advocated to lift the ban, now have the option to send weapons by August. 

The United States has yet to arm opposition forces, but the White House supports the EU in ending the weapons ban. President Obama can use this development to create a coalition with Britain and France to apply military pressure to Assad in case that the United Nations sponsored peace talks scheduled in June fail to resolve the conflict. The ideal outcome of the talks would involve the Syrian president resigning from office. 

Could the end of the EU weapons ban play a factor in Obama’s decision to supply weapons to opposition groups?

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Probably not, but if some EU members promised enough arms to influence Assad, it would be a relief to President Obama who has been reluctant to direct any type of military intervention.  If Britain and France provide military aid, Obama may escape the push from US lawmakers to supply weapons to opposition groups.

Like the EU, there is disagreement within the United States government on whether to provide weapons to rebels. The Senate wants to arm anti-Assad groups. The Syria Transition Support Act, a bi-partisan bill to provide military aid to rebels, was approved last Tuesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be submitted to Congress for vote. President Obama leaves arming the rebels as an option, but says that the US is “continually evaluating the situation on the ground, working with our international partners to find the best way to move a political transition that has Assad leaving.” 

Obama’s European counterparts of Austria, Finland, the Czech Republic and Sweden are concerned that Western arms may find their way to extremist groups. Many rebel forces are connected to terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda or jihadists. 

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is the only organization that has received international recognition as a legitimate representative of the anti-Assad movement.  It is made up of 114 moderate and liberal groups across Syria and is recognized by the U.S., Britain, France, and the EU. The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were the first nations to recognize the Syrian organization. 

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France and Britain, without the US, could provide military assistance to The National Coalition, whose power is weakening from fighting the Syrian government.

The opposition group has reported heavy losses in the city of Qusair due to Hezbollah supporting Assad.  If Assad takes back Qusair, the Syrian president would cut supply lines between areas held by opposition forces in the north and south.

The National Coalition’s most prominent member, The Revolutionary Movement in Syria, represents activist groups from across the country and is considering leaving the coalition due to its lack of strategy and power to extinguish the violence. The downfall of The National Coalition would leave the fight in Syria between rebels who are linked extremists and Assad who is linked to Iran and Hezbollah. Making matters worse, Iran and Hezbollah have begun to reach out to rebel forces in case the Assad regime collapses. 

Perhaps some EU members and the Obama administration can host a strategy meeting with The National Coalition before the UN peace talks in June. This show of solidarity could give Assad a chance to make concessions before the possibility of arming rebels.

It would also show that Western powers are seriously planning to arm anti-Assad forces.  

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Tiffany Shorter

Tiffany provides foreign and economic analysis for Communities Digital News at The Washington Times. Her column called "EMEA Watch" focuses on events in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Tiffany is known for her political commentaries on U.S. issues which have been featured on BBC, CNN, BET, The Sean Hannity Show, CCTV AMERICA, Go Africa TV and Avui (Spain). She was also a regular guest on FOX News Live, a real-time online news program.

Tiffany recently completed her graduate studies at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.



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