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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) talks with New Syrian National Coalition head Mouaz al-Khatib during a meeting at Villa Madama in Rome, February 28, 2013. (c) REUTERS/Remo Casilli
Image: Reuters

No arms for Syrian opposition

Andreas Gorzewski / ag
March 2, 2013

Despite the West's pledge to do more to support Assad's opponents, they are disappointed. Without arms, they are helpless against the forces of the regime in Damascus, the opposition says.


For many Western countries, the Syrian National Coalition is the country's legitimate representative. The opposition alliance is a point of contact for deploying humanitarian aid to refugees and Syrians living in areas under its control.

Both the US and the EU have pledged more support to the alliance - a commitment that for now continues to exclude the provision of weapons. That was made clear by details that emerged during a conference by the "Friends of Syria" in Rome on Thursday (28.02.2013). Before that, the EU had extended it arms embargo for another three months.

But both the US and the EU have made slight adjustments to their policies. While weapons remain subject to the embargo against parties involved in the Syrian conflict, it is now possible to bring in more relief goods into the area. Following the revised EU sanctions, the Syrian opposition is now allowed to receive "non-lethal" machinery and technical equipment for the protection of civilians. But each EU member state gets to decide what these items include, according to the German Foreign Office. For policy makers in Germany, it means that goods like protective gear, some transport vehicles and field equipment - listed in Section 1A of the catalogue of restricted export items - can now be sent to Syria because they don't bear "any weapon characteristics."

"Of course we need to act very cautiously and avoid any steps that might lead to further military escalation of the conflict," the Foreign Office said in a statement. An escalation of the conflict would only worsen the humanitarian situation. In Rome, US Secretary of State John Kerry also showed support for more direct help, but he was against supplying weapons to the regime's opponents.

Assad's opponents disappointed

The National Coalition is disappointed by West's latest move. The largest cluster of a fragmented Syrian opposition insists that it should be able to help itself to arms as well. The opposition movement had expected more, both from the US Secretary of State and EU member states, Hisham Marwah, a member of the National Coalition's legal committee, told DW. Russia and Iran continue to supply the regime in Damascus with military equipment on a large scale basis, he noted.

Meanwhile, the West has maintained its embargo against supplying arms to the opposition. But the National Coalition also needs weapons so that it can defend itself, Marwah explained. Encouragement alone is not enough, he added.

"We are being targeted by planes and scuds," he said, speaking from his home in Canada, "How is one to stop that - with these protective vests that Kerry talked about?"

EU countries and the US have a dilemma. They want to support the opposition in its fight against the regime in Damascus, but they also want to prevent more bloodshed and arming militant Islamists within the resistance movement. This is why they are increasing their support for Assad's opponents without providing weapons.

People run upon hearing a nearby plane bombing during a protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the al-Katerji Tariq district in Aleppo February 22, 2013. (c) REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman
People scattering in Aleppo following a bomb dropped by the regime's fighter jets last monthImage: Reuters

But the joint EU/US measures lack a clear strategy, according to Jonathan Eyal, head of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think-tank in London.

"I feel that a lot of it is not really thought out - that a lot of it is really born out of a sense of frustration, rather than out of a clear idea," he told DW.

Would weapons help the West's influence?

Eyal believes that the West's hesitation to provide arms to the opposition is justified. The argument that providing the regime opponents with weapons would give the West more influence over the movement and any future government isn't valid, he said. And it would be wrong to conclude that the Islamists among the opposition would see the West more favorably, simply based on the donation of military equipment by the EU and the US. Western involvement in Libya serves as a good example.

"I don't see the connection, however, between the quantity of supplies that we give them and the kind of internal dynamics of these organizations," Eyal said.

And while there is no direct military support, the West is trying to use its intelligence services to provide more support to the opposition. This is based on three assumptions, according to Eyal.

"First, because that is the easiest way of helping the opposition organize themselves," he said. "Second, because we need to increase our own knowledge about who these people are."

This was a lesson that the West learned after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya - too little was known about the Libyan opposition and its representatives, Eyal added. Finally, there's a competition for influence between the intelligence services on the ground in the region, he said.

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