Lifting Arms Ban against Syria Militants: A Bureaucratic Measure or a Strategic Step?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Behzad Ahmadi Lafuraki


Foreign ministers of the European Union (EU) member states met on May 27, 2013, to discuss revocation of bans which had been imposed earlier on sending weapons to the armed opposition in Syria. Offering support for the forthcoming Geneva 2 international conference on Syria, which is scheduled to be held in June in a bid to find a political solution to Syria crisis, was another major topic on the agenda of the EU foreign ministers’ meeting. However, due to profound differences among stakeholders in Syria crisis, the EU ministers failed to reach an agreement on the extension of the arms embargo against Syria militants after lengthy discussions. As a result, the sanctions were practically waived at the end of their mandate on June 1, and became automatically null and void. In this way, an end will be put to arms embargo against the Syria militants by the European Union, and European countries will make individual decisions on whether to allow export of weapons to the armed opposition in Syria. What goals are behind the recent measure by the European Union and what has caused such profound differences among its members? And finally, can this measure be taken as a strategic decision made by the European Union which will be followed by practical requirements, or is it only a decision within framework of bureaucratic process of the Union in order to keep up the apparent unity among its members?

European Union and Syria crisis

Since the beginning of the ongoing crisis in Syria, the European Union has been trying to bank on its previous experience from engagement in Libya crisis and appear united. If successful, the European Union would be able to manage Syria crisis within framework of its common foreign and security policy and on the basis of the norms it claims to be adhering to. In line with this policy, the EU has already imposed tough sanctions against the incumbent government in Syria which cover all the political, diplomatic, financial, logistical, and intelligence fields in order to provide the Syria opposition with the support it needs. Some member states of the EU, especially Britain and France, have even gone further by directly or indirectly supplying light weapons to Syria militants that use financial resources made available to them by Saudi Arabia and Qatar for this purpose. However, the member states of the European Union have been constantly at odds about the best way to support Syria militants and this has been the main cause of internal division and differences among the member states on the issue of lifting bans against Syria opposition. France and Britain, supported by silent positions taken on this issue by Italy and Spain, have been trying for a long period of time to remove the aforesaid sanctions. They believe that removing the sanctions will increase the bargaining power of the opposition groups in any possible negotiations with the incumbent Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. They also maintain that the measure will force Assad to take international efforts for restoring peace in his country more seriously and will encourage him to take part in the upcoming Geneva 2 international conference on Syria. With respect to the foreign repercussions of Syria crisis, the group believes that this measure will send a clear message to Russia and other countries supporting the Syria government telling them that if they did not give up their efforts to shore up Assad’s government, the West will take countermeasures against them. Finally and from an operational viewpoint, the revocation of the arms embargo against Syria opposition will pave the way for France and Britain to give a suitable response should the situation in Syria becomes more complicated in future.

On the opposite, the opponents of the revocation of arms embargo against Syria militants are concerned that supplying anti-aircraft and antitank weapons to moderate opposition groups may finally end in the possession of such weapons by radical Islamist fighters, including the members of al-Nusra Front. From their viewpoint, the member states of the European Union have been always in discord over what weapons should be given to which group. They argue that member states favoring revocation of arms bans against Syria militants were supposed to give guarantees about how those weapons will be used by the armed opposition groups in Syria and the risks involved in those weapons falling in the wrong hands. However, they say, those guarantees were never given. In addition, they are of the opinion that the Syria opposition actually lacks a centralized command structure and has been also accused of serious violations of human rights. In addition to the aforesaid reasons, those member states of the EU which are against removing arms ban on Syria militants give important normative reasons for their opposition. They believe that since the European Union is, and will remain to be, a pacifist community of states, any effort by the Union to militarize the situation in Syria will certainly close the doors to achievement of a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, for example, stated that the EU should hold the line because “…we are a peace movement and not a war movement.”

Therefore, the revocation of arms ban against Syria opposition groups in the EU foreign ministers meeting on May 27, was actually an outcome of the inability of the participants to reach a consensus on this issue as a result of internal rifts among them rather than being a sign that the EU member states had resolved their differences. As put by the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, the fact that the EU has not extended the arms ban against Syria militants only means that every member state has been left on their own to make individual decisions in this regard. Of course, recognizing the right of the member states to make individual decisions according to their own discretion can legitimize the efforts made by Britain, France and some other European countries which have agreed to send weapons to the so-called centrist opposition groups in Syria. On the other hand, however, it is undoubtedly a sign of the inefficiency of the common European foreign and security policy in helping the EU member states to deal with crises in a united manner. It also shows that the European Union’s policies have failed to bridge the existing gaps among its members.


As armed conflicts escalate in Syria, the measures taken by the member states of the European Union with regard to crisis in the Arab country have gradually distanced from purely relief operations and the EU no longer seeks to end the crisis through peaceful means, but is bent on bringing about regime change in Syria. Revocation of the arms ban against Syria opposition is another decision by the European Union which can be construed along the line of regime change in that country. There is no doubt that the main goal of the EU’s new measure is to legitimize its member states’ interventionist approach to Syria while implying that the government of President Bashar Al-Assad has lost its legitimacy. The European Union is also trying to forge a new balance of power after the government of Assad proved in the recent days that it has the upper hand in the conflict with the armed opposition. On the other hand, the EU’s failure to make a unanimous decision on the extension of sanctions against Syria militants and automatic revocation of those sanctions is a telltale sign of the lack of unanimity among the member states of the European Union with regard to the Union’s common foreign and security policy, which is also especially true about the EU’s common defense and security policy. It goes without saying that any measure taken by the European states to send arms to Syria militants will only widen the exiting gaps among them and also prove inefficiency of the EU’s common foreign and security policy. Therefore, more than being a strategic step which would be followed by practical requirements, the measure taken by the European Union is a bureaucratic measure, which aims to preserve the unity of the member states in order to create new opportunities for their future interventionist measures while giving legitimacy to those measures.

*Behzad Ahmadi Lafuraki is the director of international relations at Tehran International Studies & Research Institute and analyst of EU and NATO affairs.

Key Words: EU, Arms Ban, Syria Militants, Bureaucratic Measure, Strategic Step, Balance of Power, Ahmadi Lafuraki

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