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EU ends arms embargo on Syria. What does that mean for rebels?

The EU allowed the arms embargo to expire in June, but said it would not take action until August. That day is here.

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Free Syrian Army fighters try to contain civilians after gunfire was heard at the Karaj al-Hajez crossing, a passageway separating Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr, which is under the rebels' control and Al-Masharqa neighborhood, an area controlled by the regime, July 31, 2013.

Malek Alshemali/Reuters

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In May, the European Union agreed to let its embargo on giving arms to the Syrian rebels expire on June 1. That made it possible for member states to create their own policies to send weapons to militants. The EU said it would not take action until August, to allow for discussion and possible peace talks. But the talks are on hold.Where do things stand now?

By allowing the arms embargo to expire, the EU did not take – or agree to take – an active role supplying Syrian rebels with weapons. The lifting of the embargo made it possible for states to take action, but so far no EU members have taken substantive steps to send weapons. 

Why the hesitation?

When the EU allowed the arms embargo to expire, the Syrian opposition and government were set to hold peace talks in Geneva in June. Now the talks have been indefinitely postponed. Also, the United States has agreed to provide small arms to the Syrian opposition, and the military coup in Egypt has moved attention away from Syria. Russia and China, which support the Syrian government, have impeded UN efforts to end the violence or intervene.

“The experience of Iraq and Afghanistan certainly weighs heavily,” says David Butter, an expert on Syria and the Middle East at Chatham House, a London think tank. “The military, particularly in the US, is going to marshal as many arguments they can to make it the least palatable option to get into a situation where you’re gradually getting involved.” It’s very difficult to identify a rebel faction to support, he adds, or “realistic goals you can set without becoming very deeply involved and maybe getting stuck.”

Would providing weapons make a difference?

The Syrian opposition is in dire need of weapons and military support. But any weapons provided by the EU would likely be insufficient to give rebels a decisive advantage. Most military aid has been small arms, but the rebels need heavy weapons and antiaircraft weapons to gain the upper hand.

Now, military aid may be too little, too late. Last summer, it could have made a difference when the rebels had battlefield momentum and the government was suffering from manpower shortages. But Syrian government forces have regrouped and the opposition has become more fragmented and rife with extremists.

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Who would get the weapons?

Many of those who oppose arming the rebels say that weapons could end up in the hands of extremist groups opposed to the West. There are at least 1,200 armed groups in the Syrian opposition, some of which have ties to groups like Al Qaeda. While those in support of arming the rebels say they can provide weapons only to moderate groups, it remains a strong possibility that some weapons would make their way to extremists.

How much would intervention cost? 

Speaking to Congress, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined five options for a US intervention. The most minimal option would cost $500 million annually and entail training and assisting rebels. Establishing a no-fly zone would cost $500 million to initiate and $1 billion per month to maintain. The most complex option would establish a no-fly zone, get control of chemical weapons, and put thousands of troops on the ground. This would cost more than $1 billion a month to maintain. The general warned that any intervention would come with “unintended consequences.”

What is the current situation in Syria?

The conflict is one of the worst in decades. Since it began in March 2011, more than 100,000 people have died – three-quarters of them in the past year. According to United Nations figures, nearly 1 in 3 Syrians is either displaced inside the country or a refugee outside it; 6.8 million Syrians (out of a population of 21 million) are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. In the resulting power vacuum, crime, including rampant kidnapping for ransom, is on the rise. The war itself is at a stalemate, with neither side able to make significant gains.


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