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05/27/2013

Lifting Syrian arms embargo no quick solution to ending war

Will sending weapons and ammunition to armed groups in Syria tip the balance of the civil war in rebels' favour and force President Bashar Assad's regime to the negotiating table? 

That is supposed to be the reason for the lifting of the European Union arms embargo on Syria. EU ministers are today meeting in Brussels to make a decision.

A bit of background: The embargo was put in place in May 2011, shortly after protests began. Among the 22 measures, it prohibits the import and export of arms and equipment, which may be used for internal repression.  The purpose was to put pressure on Assad’s government -- but it also applies to rebels.

However, the war is now in its third year and shows no sign of ending. The 27-member European Union is divided about what to do next. France and Britain want the embargo lifted to help the opposition. 

Here are two thoughtful voices on why the embargo should stay in place:

Middle East journalist and author Patrick Cockburn writes that no one is winning the war despite the rhetoric from some Western politicians and journalists who claim more weapons to rebels would push the regime over the edge. He points out that since March 2011, rebels have only managed to capture one out of 14 provincial capitals. Assad’s strategy is retrenchment and consolidation -- not defeat.

“In recent weeks government forces have opened up the road that leads west from Homs to the Mediterranean coast and the road from Damascus south to the Jordanian border. They have expanded the territory they hold around the capital and trained a militia of sixty thousand, the National Defence Force, to guard positions once held by the Syrian army. This strategy of retrenchment and consolidation isn’t new. About six months ago the army stopped trying to keep control of outlying positions and focused instead on defending the main population centres and the routes linking them. These pre-planned withdrawals took place at the same time as real losses on the battlefield, and were misinterpreted outside Syria as a sign that the regime was imploding.” 

He concludes: “The evidence from Syria itself is that more weapons will simply mean more dead and wounded.”  

The international charity Oxfam today issued a statement warning of "devastating consequences" if the embargo ends. The opposition is fractured, it is impossible to monitor whether transferred weapons would be used to commit violations, and the knock-on humanitarian effect would be a disaster.  

Anna Macdonald, head of arms control said: “International efforts should be focused on halting arms transfers to all sides and finding a political solution to the crisis…Transferring more weapons to Syria can only exacerbate a hellish scenario for civilians.” 

READ MORE: Tragic lessons from Afghanistan on sending arms to Syria 

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour

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