Tuesday, May 28, 2013

E.U. End to Arms Embargo in Syria Weighs on Russia

In this photo released on May 26, 2013, Syrian forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad take their position during a clashes against Syrian rebels, in Aleppo, Syria
(BRUSSELS) — A day after the European Union agreed to lift its arms embargo for Syrian rebels, Russia confirmed Tuesday it was looking into giving the Syrian government more high-powered missiles — raising the prospect of a new foreign-fed arms race in the Middle East.
The public brinkmanship comes as Russia and the U.S. are trying to bring both sides in Syria to Geneva for talks on ending the country’s devastating 2-year civil war.
The Geneva talks next month, mediated by the U.S. and Russia, offer what Western diplomats say is the best — if still very tenuous — chance to end the bloodshed that is increasingly threatening to embroil Syria’s Mideast neighbors.
Syria’s civil war has already claimed over 70,000 lives and prompted hundreds of thousands to flee the country.
In Moscow, Russian officials lambasted the EU move — which was rammed through a divided EU foreign ministers meeting late Monday by Britain and France — saying that it undermines the U.S. and Russian peace efforts. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also said Russia could provide Assad’s regime with state-of-the art air defense missiles to prevent foreign intervention in the country, though he didn’t say whether any of the long-range S-300 air defense missile systems had been shipped already to President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Ryabkov called the EU move “a manifestation of double standards” that will hurt the prospects for the Geneva talks. Russia has been a key ally of the Syrian regime, protecting it from U.N. sanctions and providing it with weapons despite criticism from other nations.
Israel’s defense minister is signaling that his military is prepared to strike shipments of advanced Russian weapons to Syria.
Israel has been pressing Moscow not to go through with a promised delivery of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Damascus. Israel fears the missiles could slip into the hands of hostile groups like Hezbollah.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday that Israel believes the missiles haven’t been shipped yet but the military “will know what to do” if they are delivered.
Yaalon spoke at an annual home front drill preparing for missile attacks. This year’s exercise comes at a time of heightened concerns that Israel could be dragged into the Syrian civil war.
Israel is believed to have carried out recent airstrikes on weapon depots inside Syria destined for Hezbollah.
Monday’s EU agreement lifts a self-imposed embargo on weapons deliveries into Syria — notably equipment that could at least partially help the outgunned rebel fighters hold their own against Syria’s massive, Russian-backed firepower. EU diplomats said Britain and France were the only two member states considering such deliveries.
Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, made an unannounced visit to rebel forces in Syria, putting more pressure on Assad to seek a negotiated settlement.
In Damascus, a Syrian lawmaker on Tuesday criticized the EU decision, saying that efforts to arm the rebels will discourage the opposition from seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict.
The comments by Essam Khalil, a member of the parliament for the ruling Baath Party, were the first by a Syrian official.
The European Union said its member states within days will be able to send weapons to help Syria’s outgunned rebels, seeking to pressure President Bashar Assad’s regime ahead of planned peace talks mediated by the United States and Russia.
Though no EU country has any such plans now to send arms, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the decision “sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime.” He spoke after an all-day meeting of foreign ministers Monday that laid bare EU hesitation on feeding arms in a foreign conflict only months after the 27-member bloc won the Nobel Peace Prize.
“It is extremely important not to do anything to rock the boat. Start delivering weapons now would rock the boat. No one is intending to do that,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.
But in a bid to force Syria to participate in good faith at the prospective “Geneva II” talks next month, the meeting in Brussels dangled the option of sending in weapons and military equipment as soon as Saturday, when the current sanctions regime ends.

(MORE: Syria’s Opposition Hopes to Win the War by Selling Oil)

The prospect of EU weapons for the rebels, while maintaining stiff economic sanctions against Assad’s regime, also sends a message to Russia. Moscow has unabashedly sent weapons to Assad’s regime — and EU arms deliveries could partially re-balance the civil war when it comes to firepower.
Several EU ministers said arming the opposition would create a more level playing field that could force Assad into a negotiated settlement.
Britain and France — the EU’s biggest military powers — had been pushing the bloc to lift its embargo on delivery of weapons into Syria to help the embattled opposition. But Austria, which has sent peacekeepers to the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel, was vocally opposed — one of several EU countries that argued that the region is already awash in weapons.
EU countries will individually examine their export license applications one by one and will not proceed “at this stage” with deliveries of military equipment, the joint declaration said, though it did not specify when that might change.
EU ministers agreed to revisit the issue before Aug. 1, but countries, based on previous EU guidelines, can now decide for themselves whether they want to arm the rebels.
The EU nations also agreed everything possible should be done to control any exports and make sure they do not fall into the hands of extremists or terrorists — one of the thorniest issues for France and Britain in their calls to arm the rebels. Each country will require “adequate safeguards against misuse of authorizations (for export) granted,” the EU text said.
Hague said Britain would only send in weapons “in company with other nations, in carefully controlled circumstances, and in compliance with international law.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left the talks earlier Monday to return to Paris to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who are leading the effort to bring the two warring Syrian sides to the negotiating table.

No comments: