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The proposal to exempt anti-regime rebels from an arms embargo against Syria has failed during the EU’s 27 foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels this month. The decision was described by Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jaber Al Thani, Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister of Qatar, as “unwise.” The disappointment among the Syrians is intense.
The question is still: why did they refuse to help the revolution against a regime they clearly condemn?
Let us remember some facts that could help explaining the European reluctance.
Following the violent repression of anti-government protests in Syria from mid-March 2011, the EU took a number of restrictive measures: 1) an embargo on arms and equipment that can be used for internal repression and 2) targeted sanctions (a travel ban and asset freeze) against those responsible for or associated with the repression. In addition, the Foreign Affairs Council of May 2011 announced the suspension of bilateral cooperation programmes between the EU and the Syrian government under the MEDA/ENPI instruments and the suspension of all preparations for new bilateral cooperation. But all those measures were judged insufficient by the Syrian opposition.
At the December 2012 European Council summit there was an agreement that the EU should consider “all options” to help Syria’s opposition in their fight against the regime of Bashar Al Assad. However, the question of military support for the opposition was sidestepped. The EU currently bans the sale and supply of arms to either side in the conflict. This embargo expires in March 2013. France and the UK have been at the forefront of efforts to move the EU beyond the limits of its policy of sanctions. Together with Italy, they persuaded Germany, Spain, the Benelux countries and other member states to recognise the newly unified National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as “the sole representative of the Syrian people”. But their calls have not led the Council of the EU to move beyond the recognition of its legitimacy up to reconsidering the arms embargo that has prevented the EU from supplying weapons to groups seeking to topple the Assad regime. Sweden and Germany opposed the prospect of arming the coalition.
Is it the fear of contributing to an ethnic civil war after Assad’s departure, as it was argued? Is it the obscure prospects for Israel? Is it something else?
Many elements contribute to the European apprehension.
First, the role of Iran and Hezbollah:
Clashes between Hezbollah fighters and some Syrian Sunni resistant groups occurring recently drew the attention to the dangerous role played by Iran - via Hezbollah - in the Syrian crisis. On Feb. 18, the Syrian opposition released a statement condemning the occupation of Syrian villages and the killing of civilians by Hezbollah militiamen. The Syrian National Council (SNC) said members of Hezbollah attacked “three Syrian villages in Kusair, near the Lebanese border, employing heavy weapons openly and under the auspices of the Syrian regime army.”
Some of the observers who reported the story of these clashes, pointed to several similar incidents in the region comprising Shiite villages, located in the middle of the smuggling line in the countryside between the Lebanese town of Arsal, Al-Qa’, Lake Homs, Al-Qusayr and Talkalakh. Hezbollah and some Shia ciitizens from the region of Harmel have been reportedly involved in these skirmishes.
In August 2012, the US Treasury Department revealed that Hezbollah had been providing “training, advice and extensive logistical support to the Government of Syria’s increasingly ruthless efforts” against the opposition. Most funerals for those killed in the fighting were quiet affairs, as Hezbollah tried to keep a lid on the extent of its activities in Syria, but news began to leak.
In October 2012, Hezbollah member Ali Hussein Nassif Shamas was killed in Syria along the Lebanese border. Trying to justify the presence of Shamas in Syria, Secretary General Nasrallah said during a televised speech that Nassif (aka Abu Abbas) had been killed in an area populated by Lebanese that was frequently bombarded by Syrian rebels. According to Nasrallah, “There are 23 towns and 12 farms inhabited by Lebanese inside Syria; nearly 30,000 Lebanese live there.” Hence, the presence of Hezbollah fighters and sympathisers, assumedly to protect those Shiite Lebanese.
However, there are nearly 300,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. What about them?
On January 30, 2013, an Israeli airstrike in Syria reportedly hit a research centre in Jamarya and a convoy carrying SA-17 surface-to-air missiles apparently destined to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Reports had already emerged that Hezbollah had set up small training camps near Syrian chemical weapons depots in November 2012. According to one senior US official, “The fear these weapons could fall into the wrong hands is our greatest concern.” US officials informed the UN Security Council in October 2012, “The truth is plain to see: Nasrallah’s fighters are now part of Assad’s killing machine.”
Two months later, a UN report confirmed Hezbollah members were in Syria fighting on behalf of the Assad government.
Second, possible extension of the war:
The Syrian crisis could have tragic consequences in Lebanon. Some observers figure out a dark scenario where Hezbollah, perceiving that Assad is finished, would undertake violent action inside Lebanon to consolidate its control and fend off internal threats. This scenario would become more likely in case of Sunni provocations to Hezbollah with the purpose of weakening the Shiite organisation. It is not easy to imagine the consequences of Shiite-Sunni tensions in Lebanon, although the recent history of the country reminds us of the long civil war.
The expansion of the war on sectarian grounds could well become the darkest probability for both Syria and Lebanon. The continual Iranian meddling in this crisis – through Hezbollah – is incalculable, if we remember that at the same time, Syria is emerging as a jihadist battlefield.
Third, hardline Sunnites:
Allegations that hardliners from around the globe are streaming into Syria insistently remind Europeans of other similar conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Reports say that since the start of the uprising, influential hardline ideologues as diverse as Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri, exiled Syrian Salafist cleric Sheikh Adnan Al Arour and Lebanon’s Dai Al Islam Al Shahhal have appealed to Muslims to travel to Syria to fight the Ba’athist regime. Al Qaeda’s Iraq-based affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and the Algeria-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have also interjected themselves into the campaign by publicly declaring their solidarity with the insurgency.
AQIM commander Abu Musab Abd Al Wadoud issued a video statement in last August lamenting the Algerian government’s position on the crisis in Syria and the predicament of Syrian refugees in Algeria. Abu Hussam Al Shami, the commander of the Khilafah Brigades of Lebanon’s Fatah Al Islam militant group, was killed near Damascus in September 2012.
Non-Arab fighters, including Turks, Pakistanis, Afghanis, Somalis, and Europeans are also reportedly part of this picture.
Consequences: the EU refused to arm the rebels and would refuse to do so as long as there is no mechanism of control on the fighters, at least those fighting on behalf of the revolution.
The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)