EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton confirmed on May 27 that from now on every EU member country has the right to make its own decision on arms exports to Syria. She made precise that any arms sent to Syria would be «intended for the protection of civilians», and added that the European Union governments would review the position on sanctions against Syria before August 1. The move could alter the course of Syria's tragedy. The European Union appears to be stepping up efforts to get itself entangled in the civil war. There may be no immediate plans to ship weapons to rebels but the move sends a strong message to the world saying the EU is taking a unilateral step at the time of intensive efforts applied to do the only thing the hopes are pinned on – holding a peace conference proposed by Russia and supported by the USA.
«It was a difficult decision for some countries, but it was necessary and right to reinforce international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria», British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a written statement. «It was important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so». The only way to read this statement is that Syria is faced with an ultimatum right before the conference, saying either you agree to what the EU says or else… Looks more like a bull in a china shop than an example of dapper diplomacy.
Actually an agreement on whether to arm Syrian rebels has been hard to come by. Britain and France led efforts to lift the EU arms embargo on Syria. Both nations suggested joining countries such as Qatar in providing weapons to rebels with the goal to strengthen moderate elements and allow them to keep distance from well-armed extremists in the rebels ranks. There have been also voices the EU leadership ignored calling for prudence in view that weapons could end up in the wrong hands. As yet, Britain and France were the only two member states considering such deliveries.
Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Washington is reconsidering its policy of not providing weapons to the rebels. The Senate foreign policy panel has just approved a draft allowing the executive to deliver arms to Syrian anti-government forces. U.S. Sen. John McCain entered Syria through Turkey on May 27 making him the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit during the war. The Arizona Republican met with 18 commanders of the rebel Free Syrian Army near the country's northern border. US senators appear to have no need to ask legitimate governments, whether they like them or not, for permission to cross the state borders.
In Damascus, Essam Khalil, a Syrian lawmaker, criticized the EU decision on May 28, saying that efforts to arm the rebels will discourage the opposition from seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict. The comments by a member of the parliament for the ruling Baath Party were the first by a Syrian official so far.
Russia on S-300 deliveries
Speaking at the press-conference in Moscow on May 28, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the failure of the EU to extend the arms embargo on Syria may directly harm the upcoming international conference on Syria. According to him, «This is a reflection of double standards and a direct blow to the international conference on Syria proposed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry on May 7».
Commenting the EU embargo stance announced on May 27, Russia’s top diplomat put the blame on the EU leaders for «fanning the flames of the conflict», and told journalists that the EU’s decision reflected «double standards» and dealt a serious blow to prospects of a peace conference. He also said that the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles cannot be used against rebel forces (they don't have aircraft). Ryabkov said that Russia would stick to its goal of securing a political solution to the Syria crisis and that a peace conference and ceasefire were essential first steps to end the bloodshed. He emphasized that Russian deliveries of S-300 defensive surface-to-air missile systems to Damascus could help prevent any possible intervention by external forces in the Syrian conflict.
The S-300 is a series of Russian long-range air defence missile systems designed to intercept ballistic missiles, regarded as the most potent weaponry of its class. The missiles are capable of engaging aerial targets as far away as 200km, depending on the version used. Once the Russian surface-to-air missiles are deployed by Syria, it will have a better control of its airspace. S-300 is widely acknowledged by defense analysts as one of the world's most advanced anti -aircraft weapons. (1)
The Minister said that no one has the right to rebuke Russia for arms supply to Syria, as the deliveries go to legitimate authorities, «You may ask me: what about the Russian Federation? First of all, the Russian Federation is supplying arms to legitimate authorities and this is not an abstract or idle argument about who these authorities are and why they have the right to receive armaments of this or that sort and the other side has no such rights». He added, ««Those systems by definition cannot be used by militant groups on the battlefield», Ryabkov said. «We consider this delivery a factor of stabilization. We believe that moves like this one to a great degree restrain some hotheads from escalating the conflict to the international scale, from involving external forces».
Russia’s NATO envoy Alexander Grushko said he hoped the West would refrain from supplying weapons to Syria. «We hope that there will be no such deliveries, since the most important message today is that there is no other option than a political dialogue in the given situation», he said.
Prospects for Geneva conference
Meeting journalists after meeting his US counterpart in Paris Russia's Foreign Minister said that holding a conference to end Syria's civil war a would be a «tall order» , but there was still some light at the end of the tunnel. «It's not an easy task. It's a very tall order. But I hope that when the United States and the Russian Federation take this kind of initiative, the chances for success are there», he added.
Speaking about the international conference on Syria in an interview with the Voice of Russia radio station (2) the Minister said Russia and the United States had differing views on some aspects of the planned conference, which aims to facilitate a solution to the Syrian crisis through political dialogue. To his opinion, the United States fails to realize, that the Syrian rebels should form and send to the conference a single delegation that will represent all opposition forces in Syria. The other bone of contention is the reluctance of the US to invite Iran. Ryabkov pointed out that, «The so-called Geneva 1 on June 30, 2012 was a success, but the next step cannot be made without Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt at the next conference», he said. «Our partners unfortunately have an inflexible position in trying to prevent the Iranians from attending, which is wrong considering Tehran’s influence on the Syrian situation and in the whole region» (3).
Even a cursory look at the obvious lessons to be drawn from the recent history of armed conflicts shows that once you start delivering military aid, including arms supplies to a particular country or party to the fray, the supplier will have no control over where the weapons go. The situation in Mali is a good example of uncontrolled arms spreading around from Libya. As a rule, the arms go to wrong people. The EU leaders never said how they plan to exercise control over the fate of the supplied weapons once they get to Syria. Actually the EU decision is encouraging intervention and undermining the prospects for the much expected peace conference… Arms deliveries to internationally recognized government, a full-fledged UN member, who takes on responsibility for its action is very much different from giving arms to a motley crew of rag tag formations making up Syrian anti-government forces known to pay little attention to anybody who claims to represent a political leadership. Providing the Syrian government with purely defensive weapons is the right thing to do in view of EU decision of outright provocative nature.