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Arming Syrian rebels

Andreas Gorzewski / gb
February 19, 2013

The renewed EU arms embargo imposed on the warring factions in Syria is nothing if not controversial. Those opposed want to help the rebels and those in favor want to prevent an escalation of the conflict.

A rebel fighter shoots towards Syrian government forces through a window at a flat in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of Aleppo on February 16, 2013. More than 300 people were abducted by armed groups in northwestern Syria over two days in an unprecedented string of sectarian kidnappings, a watchdog and residents said. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian opposition groups have been beseeching the West to give them more weapons to fight the Assad regime in Damascus. But Europe and the United States are reticent.

The initial arms embargo imposed on both sides by the European Union expires on March 1. Whether or not the ban should be extended was a hotly debated issue at the EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday (18.02.2013), which finally ended with a vote to extend the sanctions.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had urgently warned against lifting the embargo because it could trigger an arms race. "That would lead to a further escalation of violence and many more victims," the minister said. Britain, in particular, had strongly supported loosening the arms ban, especially for anti-regime rebels.

Political, military, humanitarian and ethnic considerations played an important role behind the pros and cons of a weapons embargo. The thrust of most arguments was that military equipment for the Syrian opposition - no one in the West, at least, appears to be thinking about supplying the Assad regime - would most probably fan the flames of the conflict.

Fighting would become even more intense, peace researcher Michael Brzoska told Deutsche Welle. So far, the rebels have been fighting with small arms, said Brzoska, who is director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg in Germany. If rebels were to get heavy weapons, the level of violence would clearly increase, he said.

Embargo opponents want to strengthen the rebels

Supporters of arms deliveries to the rebels want to improve the military clout of the Syrian opposition. "If they get more punch, they could win the war faster and ultimately reduce the number of victims," says Brzoska, explaining the rationale of the embargo opponents.

Rebellen der Freien Syrischen Armee (FSA) streifen am 07.02.2013 durch das zerstörte Sheik Saaid, einen Stadtteil von Aleppo, der ihnen als Ausgangspunkt im Kampf um eine Zementfabrik dient. Das syrische Regime ist zu einem Dialog mit der Opposition «ohne Vorbedingungen» bereit. Die Tür für einen Dialog sei geöffnet, sagte der syrische Informationsminister Omran al-Subi dem syrischen Staatsfernsehen am 08.02.2013. Foto: Jan-Niklas Kniewel dpa
The Syrian conflict has caused widespread destruction and killed more than 70,000 peopleImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The Israeli Syria expert, Eyal Zisser, the former director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Studies in Tel Aviv points to the moral aspects. It is only understandable that Syrian rebels expect help from the international community, he notes. After all, "they are being brutally massacred by government troops." Their argument, says Zisser, is, "It is only fair to supply them with weapons so that they can defend themselves against the regime."

Weapons embargo is porous

The arms ban imposed by the EU, the US and other countries has been porous right from the start. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in particular, are said to be supplying the rebels with money and arms. To what extent Turkey is also supporting the opposition is not clear, says Brzoska. Furthermore, Lebanese arms dealers are smuggling material into Syria. Brzoska also noted that secret supplies are channeled to the rebels from the West. "Already deliveries are coming from Western intelligence services, but not much is known about them," he said.

More than anything, the various resistance groups operating inside Syria want portable surface-to-air missiles, says Zisser. So far, the rebels have little to defend themselves with against the regime's warplanes. They have mostly small arms and anti-tank rockets, he noted. Brzoska pointed out that rebel fighters are also keenly interested in getting mortar launchers to respond to the long-range artillery fire from the Syrian army.

Arms for Islamists a concern

One of the key concerns among supporters for continuing the weapons embargo is the prospect that if modern weapons technology were delivered to Syria it could end up in the hands of radical Islamist groups.

GettyImages 149527019 Syrian rebel fighters celebrate on top of a tank captured from the Syrian government forces at a checkpoint in the village of Anadan, about five kilometres (3.8 miles) northwest of Aleppo, on July 30 2012, after a 10-hour battle. The strategic checkpoint of Anadan secures the rebel fighters free movement between the northern city of Aleppo and Turkey, a Free Syrian Army commander and an AFP journalist said. AFP PHOTO/JUNOT DIAZ (Photo credit should read JUNOT DIAZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Rebels are at a disadvantage because they have few heavy weaponsImage: AFP/Getty Images

With these arms, the groups could expand their influence and prestige in a Syrian post-war order. It can also not be excluded that these weapons, one day, could be turned against Western targets. Zisser sees anti-aircraft missiles in the hands of Islamists as a very real danger. He argues that since the Syrian opposition has no unified political or military leadership, it would not be possible to fully monitor all weapons deliveries. "Once you send the weapons, you never know where they will end up," he warned.

In Brzoska's view, those who support arms deliveries have included radical groups in their rationale. If Europe were to deliver military equipment it would have more influence than if these weapons just came from the Gulf States, he says. "Shifting away from the conservative Arab states toward European countries is arguably a better instrument for ensuring that groups more aligned with the West get the weapons, Brzoska noted, summarizing the logic of those who want to end the arms ban.

All the while, the Assad regime can apparently count on continued supplies from abroad. Syrian ally Russia, has reduced its deliveries to Damascus to push Assad toward the negotiating table, says Brzoska, "but arms are still arriving from Russia." Furthermore, Iran is presumably skirting the international embargo to send weapons to Syria through its proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. And last but not least, Damascus almost certainly has enough weaponry stockpiled from the Cold War days to continue fighting for a long time.