March 15 will mark the second anniversary of the uprising against the start Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Over the last two years, what began as a new episode in the “Arab Spring” has been transformed into a civil war which has already claimed the lives of more than 70,000 victims.
During that time, Europe has been unable to adopt a common position. Starting in May 2011, it did succeed in imposing a trade embargo and a ban on arms sales, along with sanctions targeting a number of figures in the regime, which have since been reinforced: measures that amounted to a conservative compromise, designed to reconcile the strongly divergent positions of member states. At the same time, repeated calls for Damascus to enter into talks with the representatives of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have had no effect, nor did attempts to convince Moscow to terminate its political and military support for Bashar al-Assad.
For strategic and diplomatic reasons, the deployment of EU ground forces has been ruled out. In the field, the situation seems to be deadlocked. Neither side appears to be able to win a definitive victory. However, the regime, which continues to receive arms from Iran and Russia, knows that time is in its favour. And the massacre of civilians remains ongoing.
Given this context, if Europe wants the situation to evolve in favour of the rebels — which numerous countries have already recognised as the legitimate government of Syria — to the point where the regime is willing to negotiate, it will have to take steps to strengthen the FSA. For this to happen, it will have to end the embargo on arms deliveries: a move that the British Prime Minister and the French President demanded for the first time on March 14.
A number of unilateral initiatives to relax the embargo have discreetly gone ahead, but several northern countries, chief among them Germany, do not want it to be lifted completely. As Le Monde points out, their governments are concerned that any “arms that might be delivered would fall into the hands of jihadist groups, which would be likely to use them against minorities linked to the regime, or even against western interests in countries bordering Syria.”
However, change may now be on the way: in the wake of the European Council on March 14 and 15, Europe’s government leaders asked their foreign ministers to re-evaluate the ban on arms shipments to the rebels at the end of this month. London wants a common position in favour of lifting the embargo, however, Berlin has reaffirmed its opposition to such a move. In view of the possibility of continued deadlock, will Paris and London decide to go it alone in a repeat of the Libyan scenario? Such an initiative could have a major impact on the situation in Syria, but it would also be yet another blow to European diplomacy.