EU Likely to Relax Syrian Weapons Sanctions

European nations are expected to relax the terms of their embargo to put pressure on Syria’s Bashar Assad.

France's Laurent Fabius enters questions from reporters before entering a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels, January 31
France’s Laurent Fabius enters questions from reporters before entering a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels, January 31 (The Council of the European Union)

European foreign ministers are likely to agree to relax the conditions of their Syrian arms embargo when they meet in Brussels on Monday to allow France and the United Kingdom to send weapons to rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.

France and the United Kingdom have been the most vocal in advocating a change in the embargo in order to increase their support for Syria’s opposition.

Germany and other Northern European countries fear that sending weapons would aggravate the situation. “Delivering weapons always involves the danger of an arms race and slipping into a proxy war that could push the whole region into a broader conflict,” German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle told Der Tagesspiegel newspaper in late March.

His Dutch counterpart Frans Timmermans has issued similar warnings and pointed out that the opposition movement, largely one of Sunni Muslims who comprise the majority of Syria’s population, is increasingly radicalized.

Dutch security services reported in March that dozens of Muslims from the country had gone to Syria to join what they considered a holy war. It prompted the government in The Hague to raise its terror threat level to “substantial.”

Speaking in Jordan on Wednesday, American secretary of state John Kerry, however, pledged that Western powers would expand their support for opposition forces to help them “fight for the freedom of their country” if Assad did not agree to peace talks.

Russia and the United States hope to convene a conference in Geneva next month where representatives of the regime and opposition are supposed to find a political solution to a civil war that had dragged on for more than two years.

European countries and the United States have so far limited themselves to providing “nonlethal” aid, including communication and sanitation systems as well as body armor. By raising the threat of expanding support to include weapons, they might hope to coax Assad in taking the peace talks seriously.

If European foreign ministers do not agree to extend the embargo next week, it automatically expires. Which is probably why Timmermans, who otherwise resists easing the sanctions, told parliament on Tuesday that some changes were inevitable, “to help moderate forces protect the population from attacks by President Assad’s troops.”

Although he is backed by Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden, which all oppose delivering arms to Syria, the Dutchman recognized that if he perseveres, the British and France may pull out of the embargo altogether. He therefore seeks a compromise that will preserve European countries’ unity while limiting the support they allow themselves to provide to Syrian opposition fighters.

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