France to Push Europe on Arming Syrian Rebels

18.11.2012 – – By becoming the first Western power to officially recognise the Syrian opposition coalition, France has put itself at the head of efforts to break the deadlock in the war-torn Middle Eastern nation. On Tuesday, President François Hollande said the coalition was the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people” and heralded it as “the provisional government of the future democratic Syria”, thereby seizing the initiative ahead of its more cautious neighbours in the West.

A day after Hollande’s declaration, US President Barack Obama was less enthusiastic about Syria’s new opposition, declaring he was not ready to recognize it as “a government in exile”.

Obama offered a more watered down version of Hollande’s words, saying the coalition was “a legitimate representation of the aspirations of the Syrian people”. ‘The rebels are not ready to receive arms’

Whether France’s European partners will follow its lead might become clear next week when foreign ministers from the 27 member nations of the European Union meet for talks in Brussels. On the table will be the sensitive and crucial question of whether or not the time has come to arm the Syrian rebels. Hollande, who is due to meet the Syrian coalition leaders in Paris on Saturday, has made it clear the matter needs to be dealt with on an international level.

The question of arming the rebels “rests not just with France, but with all the countries who recognise the opposition”, said the French president. Fearing weapons may fall into the hands of al Qaeda, France and the West have so far insisted that the Syrian opposition must be united before any arms are passed over to rebel forces. In the meantime, however, Paris has been happy to send non-lethal military equipment, such as night vision goggles and communication apparatus, to the rebels. ‘Concrete actions needed’ But many believe the time has come for France and Europe to take definitive action to resolve the conflict.

“If this is only about recognizing the opposition, then the crisis in Syria is only likely to continue and even worsen because the regime forces are much stronger than the rebels,” explained Jean-Paul Chagnollaud, professor of political sciences at the University of Cergy-Pointoise, in the Paris region.

“The opposition leaders and the rebel fighters have been waiting for more concrete actions, like the arms shipments they have been claiming for a long time now,” the Middle East specialist said.

If France plans to push the issue of arming the rebels, it is likely to face some difficult obstacles.

“The rebels are not yet in a position to receive arms, there are too many complications so whatever happens, the short term situation in Syria is unlikely to change,” a French diplomat familiar with the Syrian crisis told FRANCE 24 anonymously. Another obstacle lies in the fact France is bound by a European Union embargo, in place since 2011, which prohibits any form of arms deliveries to Syria, whether for the rebels or for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The embargo expires on December 1, but according to an EU spokeswoman, a decision has already been taken in principle to extend it for a further 12 months.

“At the moment there is an embargo on arms, so no weapons are being delivered from Europe. The question will undoubtedly be raised for defensive weapons but it’s something we can only do in coordination with the rest of Europe,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday.

Fabius said Paris was in talks with Moscow and the United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as it waited for the Syrian coalition to form a provisional government, which could open the door to the sale of arms. “We want to avoid going towards militarization. On the other hand, we must prevent liberated zones from being destroyed. We must find a fair balance,” Fabius said.

Washington inflexible In order for the EU arms embargo to be lifted, the 27 member nations “must unanimously agree on any changes to the text of the ruling,” the French diplomat explained. But when the Council of Foreign Ministers gathers in Brussels on November 19, “the issue of weapons will not be on the agenda of formal discussions, although it is likely that talks will take place behind the scenes,” he added.

The chances of French diplomats convincing some of their European counterparts appear slim. Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has already expressed his wish that any discussions on possible “support” for the coalition be held when the next Friends of Syria meeting convenes in Morocco in December. Britain, however, has appeared more open to the notion of arming rebels, saying on November 8 that it wanted to put “everything on the table” when looking at ways of dealing with the Syria conflict. As for the White House, it appears unwilling to broach the issue of arming the rebels. “We are on our guard, especially when we start talking about arming opposition leaders, so as not to put weapons in the hands of people who could harm Americans or Israelis,” said Barack Obama.

‘Message could have disastrous consequences’ For Ignatius Leverrier, a former diplomat in Damascus and author of the blog “An Eye on Syria”, hosted by French daily Le Monde, the time for procrastination is over. “France is right to accelerate the pace of arming the rebels,” Leverrier said. “It is contradictory to demand the Syrian opposition to unite and to then continue to procrastinate once that has been done.” This will send the wrong message and it could have disastrous consequences on the ground,” Leverrier added. According to him, the longer the rebels have to wait for arms, the longer the doors will remain open for foreign jihadists to arrive in Syria.

“Even if the Syrian people are wary of them, the jihadists are taking advantage of the situation by saying ‘at least we are here fighting alongside you instead of just making promises,'” he explained.

But Leverrier insisted there was still room for optimism. “It will certainly take time for weapons to be delivered; but if the coalition demonstrates quickly that it is united and can be trusted then this may speed things up. Then, the international community could be forced to act.”