x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

European weapons 'bluff' failed to deter Assad

The lifting of an embargo on arming rebels was supposed to have pressured the Syrian president to the negotiating table.

LONDON // It was as much plea as question.

What exactly, General Salim Idris, the commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, told England's Daily Telegraph last week, "are our friends in the West waiting for?"

He was talking about the lack of any sign of officially sanctioned weapons shipments from Europe and the United States to Syrian rebels who are looking increasingly fractious and whose forces have suffered a number of setbacks in recent weeks.

It is a question that goes to the heart of western policy on Syria, or, as analysts increasingly describe it, the absence of policy.

No decision has yet been made to supply weapons, William Hague, the British foreign secretary told parliamentarians on Tuesday. But he was responding to mounting suspicions that Britain has quietly dropped the idea.

Senior military advisers have reportedly advised David Cameron, the British prime minister, that Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, could survive in power for years even if rebels received some arms from the West.

It leaves Britain's and France's vociferous opposition to extending the European Union's arms embargo on Syria in late May looking like a bluff, said Christopher Phillips, a Syria specialist at Queen Mary, University of London - one, he said, whose logic was "flawed".

"Britain and France seemed, naively, to believe that by simply threatening to arm the rebels, that would alter Assad's behaviour," Mr Phillips said.

What happened was the opposite. Buoyed after retaking the western town of Qusayr early last month, Syrian government forces backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shiite Hizbollah movement have been pressing an offensive ever since.

Russia and Iran, meanwhile, both staunch supporters of Mr Assad, have doubled down and the flow of weapons to Syria's military continues undiminished.

It should not have been a surprise, said Mr Phillips, that at the first sign of western weapons deliveries, Syria's backers would step in.

"It was quite obvious, long before the decision to lift the arms embargo, that the supporters of Assad were willing to commit a lot more resources to this fight then the opponents of Assad, in the West at least."

In fact, European leaders were candid at the time that the end of the arms embargo was not meant to result in an instant arming of Syrian rebels, said Nadim Shehadeh, an analyst at Chatham House, a think tank in London. That was partly why it failed as a political manoeuvre.

"You cannot bluff and show your cards at the same time."

Mr Shehadeh argued that only direct military intervention by western countries led by the US could succeed in dislodging Mr Assad from power.

But there is little public appetite for this in Europe. And Washington has "learnt the wrong lessons" from its occupation of Iraq, said Mr Shehadeh.

"This administration has trapped itself in a narrative of anti-interventionism," Mr Shehadeh said. An "important part" of Washington's inability to formulate a coherent policy on Syria, he argued, is the opinion that Iraq was a disaster and Barack Obama's determination to distance his administration clearly from the previous one under George W Bush.

That has resulted in the present policy vacuum, creating a situation similar to Iraq in 1991, Mr Shehadeh said, when a western-encouraged but not directly supported uprising against Saddam Hussein failed.

It is a policy vacuum that is unlikely to be filled by any European initiative, and it is not going to be filled fast. The only question is, Mr Phillips said, how far Syria's army can push its advantage on the battlefield in the meantime.