Europe likely to stay on sidelines when U.S. ships arms to Syria rebels

McClatchy Foreign StaffJune 28, 2013 

Mideast Syria Rebels

Syrian rebels prepare to make bombs to be used against government forces, at their post in Maaret Misreen, near Idlib, Syria.

MUHAMMED MUHEISEN — AP

— When the Obama administration begins arming Syrian rebels through the CIA, something news reports say will happen within the next month, it probably it will be acting without help from its European allies.

Despite the end of the European Union’s embargo on supplying weapons to the rebels, which expired May 30, experts see little will or appetite among European nations for adding more weapons to the bloody Syrian civil war. Not even the British, who were pressing just weeks ago for arming the rebels, are likely to do so.

In part, that sentiment is based on a deep concern that not enough is known about the groups that make up the rebel forces. In particular, the prominence of the Nusra Front, with strong ties to al Qaida and the al Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, raises concerns that any weapons sent into that conflict might be used eventually against international troops or interests, either in Syria or elsewhere.

“There is a sense of guilt in Europe at seeing the Russians and Iranians continue to supply the regime,” said Dominique Moisi, a security expert at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. “But there is no enthusiasm for getting involved.”

The vast majority of European nations strongly supported keeping the arms embargo in effect. But because EU decisions must be unanimous, the refusal of Britain and France to renew it meant it was allowed to expire. That may say more about the notion of a single European foreign policy than it does about sentiment to arm the rebels.

Experts think Britain and France were motivated by the hope that the threat of sending weapons would pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime to slow its attacks on the rebels and would dissuade Russia and Iran from continuing to arm the regime. But there’s no belief that France or Britain will provide the arms.

“Those who are against sending weapons are passionately against it. Those in favor are timidly in favor of sending weapons,” Moisi said.

Patrick Keller, a security expert at Berlin’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a foreign policy research center, said, “The EU as a foreign policy actor is weakened. But the way the embargo ended makes sense. Only Britain and France among members feel a global responsibility.”

The general notion in Europe is that if the so-called Big 3 – France, Germany and the United Kingdom – agree on a policy direction, they have the ability to get other nations to fall in line. In this case, Germany was strongly against the expiration of the embargo and it remains opposed to any arms sales in the region.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that Germany won’t be arming anyone involved in the conflict. The Austrians, Belgians, Greeks and Irish have made similar statements.

Keller noted that France and Britain can operate unilaterally. “There really isn’t anything stopping them,” except “they’ve shown no public desire” to do so.

“There really isn’t a European security policy to speak of,” Keller said. “It’s all unilateral.”

David Butter, a security expert at London’s Chatham House research center, said that while Britain and France had issued statements backing up the assertion that Assad’s force had used chemical weapons – the rationale for the Obama administration’s arming of the rebels – the government of neither country had shown the will to get more involved.

“Before any weapons were actually shipped to the rebels, the government would have to get a vote through Parliament,” he said. “There are no signs of that happening.”

The rebels battling to topple Assad are badly divided, and their sources of armaments are uncertain. The United States and its allies have agreed that all weapons should move through the Supreme Military Council, a group that’s led by a defected Syrian general, Salim Idriss. But Idriss’ group has little direct control over rebel forces and the most militarily effective rebels, the Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham, aren’t affiliated with it.

Current weapons supplies are thought to have come through looting of government stocks, the black market or from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. News reports have said U.S. weapons most likely will be funneled through Jordan.

What experts think is certain, however, is that Europe isn’t likely to be sending any lethal supplies.

Butter said it was wrong for Americans to assume that the pattern of European military cooperation with U.S. goals would follow previous conflicts.

“We want to compare what could happen in Syria to what happened in Iraq and Libya,” he said. “But the mistakes made in Syria will not be those made elsewhere. They will be brand-new ones.”

Ali Watkins contributed to this article from Washington.

Email: mschofield@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @mattschodcnews

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