Britain and France have vetoed a renewal of the EU arms embargo on Syria, defying the 25 other EU members. From this Saturday, the embargo that has restricted Britain to officially sending ‘non-lethal’ support to rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime no longer exists. Neither Britain nor France have, they insist, made the final decision to directly send lethal arms but, they say, they want that option to be open – from August. Before that, they hope, they say, that a political solution will be reached at the proposed peace conference in Geneva, sponsored by the US and Russia.
In May, this year, the UN estimated at least 80,000 people to have died so far in the Syrian conflict, which started in 2011 as a largely peaceful protest against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The conflict has escalated into a running battle between the Assad regime and numerous rebel groups, amongst whom are Islamic extremists. Thousands continue to perish every month in ongoing brutality and abuse, committed by both sides. Assad is being supported by the Russians and Iranians, the rebel factions by a number of Arab states, the US and Britain. Alongside the training and ‘non-lethal’ support that Britain and the US are providing the rebels, there is suggestion that they have secretly helped funnel arms into the country, getting around the official embargo.
The Western backers of the rebels, including Britain, depict themselves as noble defenders of freedom and innocence against the evil tyranny of Assad. Which begs the question as to why they were backing Bashar al Assad only a few years ago? In 2002, a Sunday Herald investigation exposed that Britain was supplying chemical agents capable of being used in a chemical weapon to Syria. In 2009-2010, Britian supplied £30,000 worth of small arms to the regime.
The answer is, of course, that back then Assad was a ‘cooperative’ dictator. Now he is increasingly an ‘uncooperative’ one. The supply line of Western weapons and equipment shall stop flowing to him and, instead, go to his enemies. There is, however, concern about Russian resistance, Islamic extremism and general lawlessness filling an Assad void, hence, the absence, so far, of a gung-ho intervention as carried out in Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and, in the form of an aerial bombing campaign, in Libya (2011).
The most cursory of glances at the historical record shows that British and other Western states’ behaviour towards dictators is defined primarily by strategy and wealth, not morality – despite the saintly rhetoric. This should make us highly sceptical about the intentions of those states that are bristling to intervene in Syria.
In a statement anticipating the EU vote on the arms embargo, Oxfam warned that: “Transfer of weapons to Syria (is) likely to spell further disaster for civilians caught in the crossfire, and fuel deadly arms race.” Sure enough, after Britain and France’s veto, Russia announced that it would supply Assad’s regime with anti-aircraft missiles – fulfilling, they say, an existing contract.
The EU has put in place rules to prevent members’ arms ending up in the hands of extremist groups amongst the Syrian rebels. However, Oxfam warned that such controls are in practice likely to be ineffective due to “the fractured nature of opposition groups and the near impossibility of monitoring whether transferred weapons would be used to commit violations, reports of abuses, the risks of diversion of arms and ammunition and the likely humanitarian knock on effects of increased transfers.” Besides, who is not an “extremist” two-years into fighting a brutal and seemingly endless civil war?
There is no simple solution to the Syrian conflict. If Britain, France and the US do start directly supplying weapons, it seems likely that the conflict will only be exacerbated, with Russia and Iran upping their contribution. Hope was raised by the proposed peace conference in Geneva next month but doubts remain whether the Assad regime or the opposition will be represented. Perhaps, these bitterest enemies will decide to sit it out in anticipation of fresh Western arms with which to complete the annihilation of the other and, in the process, Syrian society.