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Syria: Is EU move a game-changer?

For two years Syria’s rebels have begged the international community to supply them with the weapons they say they need to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.


Now, their desperate pleas for help are one step closer to becoming reality after the EU lifted its arms embargo on Syrian rebels, clearing the way for European countries wishing to try to level the playing field in a horrific civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 70 000 people.

But can EU weapons turn the tide in the rebels’ favour in Syria, or is it already too late? CNN examines the core questions behind the announcement.

Why has the embargo ended and what does it mean?

The weapons embargo on Syrian rebels, along with a series of other Syria-related bans and sanctions, was scheduled to expire last Saturday.

But while the EU’s 27 member countries were able to reach the required consensus to extend all other bans, Britain and France refused to agree to an extension of the arms embargo.

The lifting of the embargo comes with conditions — EU countries wishing to send weapons to Syria’s rebels may only send them to the moderate Syrian National Coalition and the affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA), and they may only be used to protect civilians, according to a statement from the EU.

While the ban will technically be lifted tomorrow, it is expected that the earliest EU countries would send weapons to the rebels would be August, so as not to imperil the prospects of a US and Russian-brokered peace conference scheduled to take place in Geneva in June.

Britain and France led efforts to lift the embargo. Both nations suggested joining countries such as Qatar in providing weapons to rebels, arguing such a step would strengthen moderate rebels and make them less reliant on well-armed extremists in their ranks.

“It was important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so,” British Foreign secretary William Hague said in a statement.

But the lengthy negotiations over the arms ban to rebels exposed the deep divisions in EU countries’ foreign policies — with Britain and France arguing forcefully to lift the embargo, while nations including Austria and Sweden expressed fear that more weapons will only make the bloodbath in Syria worse.

EU countries are free to send what they like to Syria’s rebels provided the weapons go to the Free Syrian Army and can be justified as protecting a civilian population.

Western countries could conceivably provide rebels with small arms and ammunition. But they’re unlikely to provide rebels with the arms they need most — like portable shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles (Manpads) to counter Assad’s domination of Syrian air — out of fear they’ll fall into the hands of radical Islamic militant groups such as al-Nusra Front, which the US says is affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Without anti-aircraft missiles or heavier armour-piercing ammunition, experts say it’s unlikely that the rebels will be able to win the war.

The conflict in Syria has gone too far; it has mutated from an internal conflict to a regional war by proxy.

When Syrian rebels have obtained anti-aircraft and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) in the past, they’ve been very effective, according to Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, who says social media and militant group videos appeared to reveal an influx of Yugoslavian anti-tank weapons into rebel hands in southern Syria earlier this year via Jordan.

“The ATGMs had a fairly significant impact on the conflict in the short-term, in that they did allow rebels to take out tanks more effectively than they’d been able to previously,” Lister said. “But these weapons very quickly went into the hands of militant Islamic groups like al-Nusra.”

It is nearly impossible to prevent extremists from gaining possession of weapons once they’re smuggled into Syria, according to Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.

“Once you deliver weapons into a theatre of operation, no one can have control or track who takes ownership of the weapons,” Gerges said. “Britain and France are aware the weapons could fall into the wrong hands, but they’re willing to take a risk.”

Without an influx of heavy weaponry, experts say the lifting of the embargo won’t change the reality on the ground: Assad’s regime is on the offensive, and the influx of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon means there is little the rebels can do to slow their progress at the moment.

The real goal of the EU announcement, Gerges said, is to try to “maximise the chances of a diplomatic breakthrough” at the upcoming Geneva peace talks — if the talks go ahead.

The irony of the situation, Gerges said, is that while the US President Barack Obama wants Europe and/or Syria’s neighbours to “take ownership” of the conflict, no country will do that without the United States taking a leadership role on Syria.

“The announcement is not a game-changer,” Gerges said. “I doubt very much whether it will make a difference in the raging struggle inside Syria.”

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