PARIS: The European Union’s decision to lift its arms embargo on Syria, after a bitter, 13-hour debate in Brussels, is intended to put pressure on Russia and President Bashar Assad of Syria before peace talks scheduled in Geneva next month, with a message that the West will not allow the rebels to be defeated, senior European diplomats said Tuesday.
The decision is also intended to boost the more Western-aligned opposition and break the perception that it is being abandoned, while the radical Islamists of Al Nusra Front and its allies continue to get support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the diplomats said.
The idea is “to change the perception of Assad that he now has time on his side, with more support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah,” a senior European diplomat said.
The decision to let the arms embargo lapse appears to be part of an effort by the pro-Assad and pro-rebel sides to enter the talks in Geneva next month with a stronger hand.
The West had calculated that rebel pressure on Assad would be so great he would enter negotiations from a position of weakness. But in recent weeks, Assad’s standing has at least temporarily been shored up.
“Geneva will be hard enough, but without lifting the arms embargo, it would be nothing at all,” another senior European diplomat said, speaking anonymously in accord with diplomatic protocol.
Britain and France were the prime movers in strong-arming other EU countries to let the arms embargo on Syria lapse, while other of the union’s sanctions aimed more specifically at the Assad government were renewed.
Part of the debate in the long meeting, which ended late Monday night, was to promise that neither Britain nor France would begin to deliver any arms, if they chose to do so, until the beginning of August, to allow the Geneva peace process to get traction, the officials explained.
Officials of Britain and France, which have Europe’s most advanced militaries and are both members of the U.N. Security Council, argued that the arms embargo was so strict that it applied to many kinds of nonlethal supplies, from gas masks to secure communication devices. They also argued that lifting it will allow more flexibility in supplies.
“This is a way to try to balance the Russian game and make it clear that the Europeans want to play ball around Geneva, but have this option open,” said Camille Grand, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “The message to both Assad and Moscow is that, ‘You’re not winning on all fronts, and we have a plan B that would make your military successes more difficult, that we can also play the protracted war scenario.’?”
The jockeying, however, may scuttle the long-shot peace talks even before they get off the ground. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov said that the EU decision was “illegitimate in principle.”
“A number of actions that are being taken — and they are not being taken without the involvement and support of our Western partners, including the U.S. and France — intentionally or unintentionally serve to disrupt the conference,” Lavrov said according to the Interfax news service.
The deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, in a statement called the EU decision “a reflection of ‘double standards.’?” Later, he said, “You cannot declare the wish to stop the bloodshed, on one hand, and continue to pump armaments into Syria,” the Interfax news service said.
A senior European official, told of the comment, said Russia, which has been pumping arms into Syria, might “take its own words to heart.”
Ryabkov, who has been seen as collegial to Western diplomats in the nuclear talks with Iran, insisted that Russia, by contrast, was selling arms to “legitimate authorities,” not supplying rebels. He defended a plan to provide Syria with S-300 air defense missiles, saying they would be a “stabilizing factor” that could deter a Western-led intervention.
Russia, on the request of Washington, Europeans and Israel, has not yet delivered those missiles to Damascus. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon of Israel said Tuesday that if the S-300s “arrive in Syria, we will know what to do,” suggesting that would again threaten an escalation with another Israeli strike.