x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

British and French efforts to get EU to rethink Syria policy 'hit and hope'

A European Union embargo prohibits members from providing weapons to the rebels fighting to topple the regime of the president, Bashar Al Assad. Omar Karmi reports from London

LONDON // British and French efforts to persuade European nations to arm Syrian rebels are "hit-and-hope" and fail to form part of a coherent plan to end the civil war, according to analysts.

A European Union embargo prohibits members from providing weapons to the rebels fighting to topple the regime of the president, Bashar Al Assad.

European foreign ministers sit down in Dublin today for an informal meeting, with Anglo-French calls to change the EU's approach to the Syrian conflict top of the agenda.

But the two countries were unlikely to convince their EU allies, said analysts. And as long as the United States remains lukewarm about any deeper involvement, weapons deliveries direct from western countries to Syria's opposition remain some way off.

Amid growing pressure from the international community, the US this month began supplying non-lethal aid directly to rebels for the first time since the uprising began two years ago. Britain also stepped up its assistance after the EU embargo was relaxed last month to allow the supply of military vehicles, non-lethal military supplies and technical aid.

Rebels are instead securing arms from other sources, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, raising concerns in western countries about the West's ability to influence the outcome of the civil war.

Last week, France said it wanted to see the EU embargo lifted when it comes up for review in May.

Scrapping it, said Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, was one of "the only means" left to secure progress toward a settlement of the conflict.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, even mooted the possibility of unilaterally breaking the embargo - and with it, international law - suggesting on March 12 that "we might have to do things our own way".

It is unlikely this pressure will bear fruit. So far, Anglo-French policy had been haphazard, said Christopher Phillips, a Syria specialist at Queen Mary University of London's school of politics and international relations.

"This is not being presented as part of a clear plan to end the civil war," he said. "It's really being presented as 'we've tried all the options, this is the next one'."

Germany, he said, remained the most significant obstacle in Europe to Anglo-French plans.

During the European Council meeting last week, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said she failed to see how more weapons on the ground would help.

Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and the Czech Republic are against any easing of the embargo, while the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg have expressed scepticism. Britain and France have also failed to address concerns over who would get weapons, and how it could be guaranteed they would not fall into hands hostile to the West.

"Germany is quite right in flagging this up and saying that 'you haven't answered any of this, you've just adopted a hit-and-hope policy and we can't endorse that'," said Mr Phillips.

It was also not clear that Britain and France would want to arm the rebels immediately anyway.

On Sunday, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said any movement of arms would have to be "very carefully controlled", to prevent them falling into the hands of Islamist forces operating as part of the Free Syrian Army.

The risk was worth it, he insisted, when weighed against the "risks of international terrorism, and extremism taking root in Syria; the risks of Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan being destabilised; and the risks of extreme humanitarian distress".

Nevertheless, simply lifting the EU embargo without delivering arms may be the first aim of the British and French, Mr Phillips suggested. It might increase their diplomatic leverage with Russia and push Moscow to "play a more constructive role" in breaking the political deadlock.

Washington's role is crucial, said Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow with Chatham House, a think tank in London. The EU's considerations were secondary as long as the US was reluctant to commit.

Barack Obama, the US president, has made it a virtue for a war-weary US to "lead from behind", as the US did in the international intervention in Libya in 2011.

Then, Britain and France took a front-line role, leading some to suggest that Anglo-French efforts on Syria now had a tacit green light from Washington.

If so, said Mr Shehadi, the US was only leading from "far, far behind".

The "shadow of Iraq" explains American reluctance to get more deeply involved in Syria, he said.

The Obama administration saw the Iraq war as a defeat, he said, and distanced itself from any suggestion it would engage in regime change. Instead, it "did engagement", said Mr Shehadi, for which Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad was once the "centre piece".

"They sank too deep into that narrative to the extent that if they change it now, they think they would be vindicating the Bush administration."