x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Evidence of chemical weapon use in Syria changes little

Despite the findings and an outspoken desire to do so, France and Britain are unlikely to arm Syria's rebels, analysts say. Omar Karmi reports from London

LONDON // Britain and France have declared that there is significant evidence chemical weapons have been used in Syria by the Syrian military.

But it was unlikely that the countries, the most outspoken in their desire to arm the Syrian opposition, would take any significant steps in that direction, analysts said, even if they were no longer constrained by an EU arms embargo.

Rather, they may have weakened their hand by pushing for the EU to drop the embargo and, in the process, undermined diplomatic efforts to get the parties around the table to start talks between the regime and the rebels trying to overthrow it.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said on Tuesday that tests carried out by a French laboratory had confirmed that sarin gas, a nerve agent, had been used several times during Syria's two-year conflict, and at least once by "the regime and its accomplices".

The claim was echoed in London, where further tests were carried out.

"It doesn't tell us, that evidence, about the scale or the frequency of that use," William Hague, the British foreign minister, said yesterday.

"But to us it is very strong evidence that it has been used and that it's been used on more than one occasion."

Mr Hague said he was "not jumping to any further conclusion about this", added that "the next step on this is the UN investigation".

A UN Commission of Inquiry report on Tuesday said the conflict - which the United Nations estimates has claimed more than 70,000 lives - had reached "new levels of brutality", and cited "reasonable grounds" for suspecting that chemical weapons had been used.

Both Britain and France last month pushed for the EU drop its arms embargo on Syria, clearing the way for countries to supply weapons to the divided opposition.

Both nations made it clear they would not immediately arm rebels. Instead, said Christopher Phillips, a Syria specialist and professor at Queen Mary University of London, they seemed to be banking on merely lifting the embargo having an effect on the calculations of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, and his backers in Moscow and Tehran.

It did, but not in the way Paris and London might have hoped. Instead of being deterred, Moscow doubled down on its support for Damascus, calling Britain and France's bluff by announcing the sale of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles.

Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group closely aligned to Iran, confirmed its fighters were openly fighting on the side of the Syrian military. Yesterday, they retook the strategic border town of Qusayr.

"The problem Britain, France and, indeed, the US, have is that they are not willing to commit as much to this conflict as the other players are," said Mr Phillips. "And until they are willing to put in their own troops or set up a no-fly zone, that problem will remain."

Accusations of chemical-weapon use would not change that calculation while the US president, Barack Obama, remains reluctant to get involved, showing a more sophisticated understanding of "vicious dynamics" in a conflict with "no easy answers", said Julien Barnes-Darcey of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

"Obama's reluctance and hesitation reflects an understandable uncertainty about how the US could make a decisive difference in the positive," he said.

The EU's dilemma now is that without US support for military action, the effect of any British and French efforts to arm the opposition would be minimal. The lifting of the arms embargo, Mr Barnes-Darcey said, was "an empty bluff".

"Both Assad and his international backers know that Europe is never going to supply the kind of weaponry that would actually make much of a difference on the ground in terms of shifting the balance of power."

In a recent report for the ECFR co-written by Mr Barnes-Darcey, the authors cautioned against "intervention-lite" or "diplomacy-lite".

The choice, they said, was between a full-scale intervention and a commitment to real diplomacy. The latter path, which they recommended, necessitates "an honest acknowledgement of the balance of power", Mr Barnes-Darcey said.

"That means Assad isn't going anywhere any time soon. And until the opposition and the West accept that, there isn't any opportunity or any chance of moving ahead with real deal-making diplomacy."

But by pushing for an end to the arms embargo, Britain and France have not only forced Russia to show its displeasure, they may also have emboldened the opposition to reject negotiations, said Mr Phillips.

Syria's opposition has rejected any conference that does not explicitly seek the removal of Mr Al Assad. The mooted Geneva conference - suggested by Washington and Moscow - has been postponed to July. It may take longer to materialise now.

"The rebels have never wanted to negotiate," said Mr Phillips. "They don't believe Assad will stay true to his word. And now that the legal obstacle [to arms deliveries] has been removed, they might well dig in their heels and refuse to go to the peace conference unless they get the weapons they want."