Syria arms ban debate intensifies in Europe

Lyse Doucet
Chief international correspondent
@bbclysedouceton Twitter

image copyrightAFP
image captionSyria has been devastated by three years of fighting

As Syria's uprising enters its third year, the prospect of a protracted and painful war is concentrating minds in many places.

In European capitals, a debate is growing over whether to lift an EU embargo to allow military support to Syrian rebels.

But the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is urging caution.

"We have to work through, very carefully, the best understanding we have of the implications" of lifting the ban, she told the annual Brussels Forum hosted by the German Marshall Fund.

"Would it stop people being killed or would it kill people faster?" she asked.

France seems to have made up its mind. "Lifting the embargo is one of the only means left to make things move politically," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared last week.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated that call on Sunday, arguing that there was "a strong case" for lifting the embargo when it comes under review in May.

image copyrightAP
image captionFrance - together with Britain - are pushing for the arms embargo to be lifted

"Our overall goal of a political negotiated settlement has not changed," underlined a Western diplomat.

But he pointed to the Syrian government's edge in the military balance of power, aided by Iran and Russia. "The opposition's weaker position doesn't create the right atmosphere for political negotiations."

'Wrong hands'

Military support to the opposition from countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia had reportedly decreased earlier this year, but one informed source said more was now reaching rebel-held areas.

Britain and France are calling for an emergency meeting to discuss Europe's ban, but EU officials say the decision cannot be rushed.

"We have already loosened the embargo to allow for more aid," one senior EU official told me.

At the end of February, the EU amended sanctions to allow the supply of armoured vehicles, as well as non-lethal military equipment and technical aid to the opposition - on the understanding it would help protect civilians.

"Its not only up to us," the official emphasised. "We must consult Syria's neighbours already taking in a massive influx of refugees, who would be affected by any upsurge in violence."

There's also long been concern that more arms would "fall into the wrong hands" - in other words well organised Islamist fighters with their own agenda.

One European official spoke of a "battle" during the February meeting. But he said the issue was not raised last week when foreign ministers met Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy.

"Perhaps that was out of politeness to Brahimi who has made it clear he believes only a political solution will work," said a minister who attended the session.

'Focus on Geneva'

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told me why he opposes more military aid.

"There is a risk that if we focus on the military side, it could bring about a collapse of the political track," he said.

"All our energies should be focused on a negotiated solution."

Russia's ambassador to Nato, Alexander Grushko, sounded a similar warning. "Lifting the arms embargo is an invitation to stop talking," he cautioned.

He dismissed criticism that Moscow's military and financial aide was a key factor keeping President Bashar al-Assad in power.

image copyrightAFP
image captionRebels control whole areas of Syria's war-torn cities, like here in Aleppo

One reliable source said "planeloads of money" printed in Russia were being flown to Syria.

Ambassador Grushko insisted that "we should all focus on Geneva".

The Geneva communique, first agreed by world powers last June, sets out in general terms the establishment of a transitional government whose members would be selected by Syrians through "mutual consent."

Discord between Moscow and Washington on how to move forward has been a major obstacle.

But Wendy Sherman, the US Under Secretary for Political affairs, told the Brussels Forum that the Geneva agreement "is still a basis for reaching a solution" to the conflict.

But she said the US was looking at "what more we need to do".

Humanitarian crisis

Western diplomatic sources say they believe some progress was recently made on holding very preliminary discussions between Syrian government and opposition representatives.

Even that would be a major breakthrough on the political front.

Many in the opposition reject any role for President Assad - even during a transitional period.

In Damascus earlier this year, a senior presidential aide told me they would not accept the idea of a transitional body with "full executive powers" which would effectively mean relinquishing control.

There's expected to be intense argument later on Monday in Istanbul, when the main opposition body, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), discusses its next move.

Some members are pushing for the appointment of an interim prime minister, others for an interim government based in opposition-held areas of northern Syria where people are living in desperate conditions.

Coalition President Moaz al-Khatib is known to oppose the unilateral declaration of an interim government, fearing it would deepen divisions and impede any progress towards a transitional body which could bring about a transfer of power.

Some Western governments are also discouraging this option. They've been focusing on efforts to build local offices capable of stepping in where social services have collapsed.

As decision makers on all sides argue over the next steps, Syria's humanitarian crisis worsens by the day.

"In two to three months, our humanitarian space will shut," warned one Western aid official, who stressed that not enough aid was reaching people in areas where the government had lost control.

"Soon we won't be welcome," he regretted.

"We risk a double failure," he added, pointing to political disunity among world powers and a humanitarian operation that has let down the Syrian people.

As the third year of the conflict starts to unfold, there is no clear sign those risks - however worrisome - will be avoided.