On 28 May the European Union ended its arms embargo on Syria. The move was driven by the UK and France. They say that they don’t intend to send arms, but instead to use the threat of sending arms to apply pressure for a deal at the Geneva conference convened by the US and Russia, which is pencilled in for 15-16 June, but may be postponed.
The US welcomed the EU decision, while still saying that the US itself would not send arms. Geneva probably won’t yield a deal. The main external opposition front, the Syrian National Council, says it won’t attend, in protest against the siege of the Syrian town of Qusair by the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran and allied with Assad. The SNC’s stance may be a way of jockeying for position and trying to extract concessions in advance, but it does not promise well.
What then? Socialists had no reason to endorse the European Union arms embargo. Sectarian Sunni-Islamist militias within the Syrian opposition have a lot of arms and funds from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Assad is supported by Iran and Russia.
On 28 May Russia said it would supply advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Assad. Israel issued a thinly veiled warning that it would bomb the Russian missiles if they arrived in Syria. The Financial Times reports “private doubts among Russian officials and analysts that the deliveries will take place”.
It does not, however, follow that we can support or applaud the lifting of the embargo. British and French arms shipments will probably, directly or indirectly, boost some sectarian Islamist group.
The UK and France reportedly plan to send arms, if they send any, to Selim Idris, the senior military defector from the Assad regime and nominal head of the “Free Syrian Army”.
Idris recently asked the US and EU for arms for use against both Assad and elements of the opposition, saying that “wants to create a more moderate and stronger alternative to Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda-linked militant group that has emerged as one of the most powerful rebel factions” (FT, 22 April). But Idris in no way represents a reliable force, politically or even militarily.
“General Idris acknowledges that he does not command the forces on the ground” (FT, 22 April).
A major question mark on all assessments is the plans of Turkey, which is the major military force in the region and has the major border area in which Syrian opposition militias operate.
Turkish government announcements are cautious, with prime minister Erdogan saying that he “purely and simply stands by humanity and conscience” in Syria. One element looks like being a Kurdish gambit. Turkey has recently done an oil deal with Iraqi Kurdistan. Syrian Kurdistan is de facto autonomous. Turkey is negotiating with the Turkish-Kurdish PKK.
Turkey may hope to expand influence in the region in the guise of guarantor and ally for the Kurds.