The war in Syria is starting to seem not so much a civil war as a proxy war led by foreign actors.
On May 31, the EU arms embargo on Syria expired: during their meeting a few days earlier, the 27 EU member states could not agree to renew it for another year because of France and the United Kingdom’s fierce opposition. The lack of unanimity meant the embargo lapsed automatically.
The deal not to renew the arms embargo comes with an ambiguous political declaration that nobody will deliver weapons “at this stage”; it also comes with a promise to send arms “for the protection of civilians only” but what it means exactly is anyone’s guess. All other sanctions – including visa bans, asset freezes and a prohibition on buying oil from regime-linked firms – were extended for another year.
Negotiations were tough, with the arms embargo question being pushed through by Paris and London against the will of the 25 other member states, led by Austria and Sweden, who argued that sending more weapons to the region would increase violence and spread instability. Austria’s foreign minister Michael Spindelegger said the EU is a “peace organization” which should not make a “fundamental change” in its foreign policy by intervening on one side in a civil war.
Other skeptics, such as the Czech Republic, worry that surface-to-air or anti-tank missiles shipped to “moderate” rebels might end up in the hands of radicals. And if extremists groups get their hands on the equipment, they might use it against Western allies.
The United States welcomed the action. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell, during a briefing in Washington, declared that “while it is ultimately an EU decision, we do support the easing of the EU arms embargo as a part of the international community’s efforts to demonstrate its full support for the Syrian opposition. So we support it.”
Asked about whether the US would provide the Syrian opposition with weapons, Ventrell answered that the US had not yet made a decision one way or another. On May 21, the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee adopted the Syria Transition Support Act, a proposal that allows, under certain conditions, the delivery of arms and the distribution of anti-aircraft defensive systems to the Syrian opposition. The text still must be approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives and signed by the president, but no agenda to this end has been set at this stage.
Russia on its part harshly criticized Europe’s decision to allow the arming of Syrian rebels, saying it undercuts international efforts to negotiate an end to the civil war. “This does direct damage to the prospects for convening the international conference,” Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said, referring to plans to hold international peace talks in Geneva next month.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denounced the lifting of the EU arms embargo as an “illegitimate decision,” saying that supplying weapons to non-governmental groups “goes against all norms of international law.” Putin went on to mention that Britain sponsored an international treaty that forbids supplying arms to non-governmental actors: “We presume that all UN members will join it or at least starting from this day, follow the rules and principles, which our British colleagues suggested,” Putin said.
Russia has a point: it is forbidden under international law to supply arms to a party in a civil conflict. Lifting a self-proclaimed embargo or adopting a specific piece of legislation does not fundamentally change anything to this internationally agreed-upon principle.
Voices for peace
In fact, rather than mitigating the violence, a new influx of arms could escalate the conflict both within and beyond Syria’s borders. It could fuel a deadly arms race that would have brutal consequences for civilians — civilians who need aid and stability, not weaponry in the hands of additional belligerent parties.
This is what Mairead Maguire, a peace activist from Northern Ireland and a 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been arguing for. She led a 16-person delegation from eight countries to Syria and Lebanon during the early weeks of May, invited by the Mussalaha (Reconciliation) movement – an inter-religious popular movement, which proposes a “reconciliation from below” starting from families, clans and the different communities of Syrian civil society who are growing tired of the conflict. The movement intends to demonstrate that there is a “third way” possible, an alternative to war and weapons.
Following her investigative trip into Syria and Lebanon, Maguire declared that “it is for the Syrian people to decide about their own problems, their own destiny, their own politics, their own leadership and form of government. No one has the right to interfere in their internal affairs and all foreign forces must withdraw and stay away. The flow of arms and armed fighters must be stopped, sanctions must be lifted and if the arms embargo should remain in place, it ought to apply to all parties involved, not just the Syrian government that has a right to defend itself from foreign aggression”.
Maguire, in her report of the mission, writes how, during the delegation’s visit of refugee camps, they were told that there were “foreign fighters from many countries like Libyans, Saudis, Tunisians, Chechens, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Emiratis, Lebanese, Jordanians, Turkish, Europeans, Australians, and that these gangs are financed and trained by foreign governments,” adding that “an appeal to end all violence and for Syrians to be left alone from outside interference was made by all those we met during our visit in Syria.”
The delegation met some “young people who said they support the opposition but in order to protect the unity of Syria from outside destruction, they will support the government and President Assad, until the election next year and then they will vote for the opposition. They said the Doha Coalition in Qatar does not represent them and no one outside Syria has a right to remove president Assad but the Syrian people through the elections next year.”
In other words, the war in Syria is not so much a civil war as a proxy war led by foreign actors with serious breaches of international humanitarian law. Many Syrians are stunned by the horrors and suddenness of all this violence and worry their country is simply under attack by outside forces. They are all too aware that huge geopolitical forces have a hand in destabilizing the country.
As early as February 2012, Infowars cited a DebkaFile report claiming that “British Special Forces [were] on the ground in Syria directing rebel fighters in a repeat of how Libyan rebels were aided in the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi.”
More recently, on May 16, the Financial Times reported that “the gas-rich state of Qatar has spent as much as $3bn over the past two years supporting the rebellion in Syria, far exceeding any other government, but is now being nudged aside by Saudi Arabia as the prime source of arms to rebels.”