Syria arms embargo: EU divided despite consensus

Syrian rebel fighters carry heavy weapons (27 January 2013)

Under intense pressure from Britain and France, the European Union's arms embargo against the Syrian rebels has been lifted. But there is no immediate prospect of European weaponry heading for Syria.

Once again, Europe's divisions are in evidence; what was promoted as a strong message to the Syrian regime may actually fall short of sending quite the signal that was intended.

For the British government- one of the main advocates of lifting the embargo - the move is seen as a step "to reinforce international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria".

But this was by no means the universal European view.

Several countries, including the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Sweden were sceptical, especially of the assurances given by the British and French that weaponry could be directed to moderate rebel groupings and kept out of the hands of more radical Islamist elements.

Europe went into this meeting divided and it emerged divided, though it could have been a lot worse.

There were fears that, if a consensus could not be reached, then not just the arms embargo but all other EU sanctions against the Syrian regime would lapse.

That would have sent an even worse message as individual governments would have had to scramble to impose sanctions of their own.

But with the European Union's strongest foreign policy players eager to make the change, a deal had to be struck on their terms.

'Symbolic signal'

Germany played a key role in brokering a compromise. Yes, the arms embargo against the rebels will lapse, but all of the other EU measures against Syria will continue. The diplomatic pressure - such as it is - will be maintained.

The deal reached in Brussels was "more symbolic - to send a signal to Assad", an EU source close to the talks told the BBC.

European ministers have also agreed on what they have termed "a common framework" to guide any future arms sales to the rebels, should a decision be taken to arm them.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague says that "these agreed safeguards would ensure that any such equipment would only be supplied to the Syrian National Coalition (the mainstream rebel grouping) for the protection of civilians".

But any move to actually arm the rebels is likely to prompt renewed unease in several European capitals. It's far from clear how, in practical terms, weaponry can be prevented from getting into the hands of Islamist elements.

Much of the fighting is done by coalitions of armed groups, among whom the Islamists are often the most effective.

There is always a danger that weaponry supplied to one rebel group could fall into the hands of others.

Britain and France have won the day for now, but there are powerful arguments that pushing weaponry into Syria only increases the chances of further factional fighting should the Assad regime fall.

But what is most interesting about the lifting of the EU arms embargo is what it tells us about the current state of EU diplomacy.

Just as with the Libya intervention, the French operation in Mali and now Syria, Europe's major foreign policy actors seem to be charting the way ahead, with many other countries being reluctant bystanders at best.

This is perhaps to some extent inevitable given these countries' very different histories and the differing means at their disposal.

But having come to a decision, a divided Europe's message is inevitably devalued. Yet again the international diplomacy surrounding the Syria crisis seems to be well behind developments in Syria itself.

No game-changer

This EU decision will not change matters on the ground. There is no general arms embargo on Syria.

Russia continues to arm the government forces and a number of Gulf countries and Turkey, in various ways, facilitate weaponry reaching the rebels.

For now there is no game-changing move from the Europeans to train and equip rebel forces and ultimately training could be just as important as the supply of sophisticated weaponry.

Meanwhile, a US and Russian-brokered peace conference beckons, one of the reasons why so many European countries were uneasy about lifting the embargo now.

On the ground in Syria things are changing. Drawing up a balance-sheet of the fighting is never easy but there is evidence that government forces have been doing better in recent weeks.

The decision by the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah to openly wade into the fray on the government's behalf has also had a significant impact.

As a consequence, the fighting risks boiling over into Lebanon itself; the dangers of a wider regional conflagration are growing by the day.

The EU's response is to lift its arms embargo against the rebels but to supply no weaponry for now.