Trudy Rubin: French urge Obama to rethink stand on arming Syrian rebels

Published: Saturday, Mar. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A

BRUSSELS, Belgium – France and Britain are pressing the European Union to end its embargo on arms for the Syrian opposition, in the hope that they can encourage President Barack Obama to follow their lead.

French and British leaders' frustration with U.S. waffling on Syria was palpable in Brussels last week. As the flood of refugees from Syria grew to tsunami levels, threatening to destabilize much of the region, French President Francois Hollande declared bluntly, "The biggest risk is inaction."

Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington won't stand in the way of its allies' moves to arm the opposition, but the administration still refuses to provide mainstream Syrian rebel groups with weapons – even as radical Islamists obtain money and guns.

The French make a convincing case that this position should be rethought.

"We believe there will only be a way out when the military situation on the ground changes," said the French Foreign Ministry's director of policy planning, Justin Vaisse, at the Brussels Forum, an annual conference organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Vaisse said the current European Union embargo on arms for the rebels was backfiring. Regime forces get weapons from Iran and Russia, while the moderate opposition often lacks bullets. The regime can bomb and shell Syrian civilians with impunity, with more than 70,000 Syrians dead so far.

"The arms embargo is now backfiring," Vaisse said emphatically. "The playing field is not level. The opposition is fighting with hands tied behind back.

"This is why Great Britain and France will ask for an end to the (EU) embargo when it expires at the end of May." If the EU fails to vote down the embargo, France may send arms anyway.

U.S. officials say, rightly, that the Syrian crisis can only be resolved by a political solution, not a military one. Toward this end, Washington is still hoping Moscow will pressure the regime to negotiate, and is still backing U.N. efforts to broker talks.

France and Britain also seek a negotiated solution. But, said Vaisse, negotiations "will be taken up by Bashar Assad only when he has no other option. The political process … isn't going anywhere, (because) the situation on the ground isn't conducive."

He is correct. The current military stalemate leads Syrian President Bashar Assad to believe he can survive the fighting. On a recent visit to Moscow, France's Hollande tried unsuccessfully to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to facilitate talks between opposition leaders and less-tainted officials in the Syrian government. Putin's lack of interest convinced the French that Russia won't play a positive role.

France believes that if the allies provide ground-to-air weapons, known as MANPADS, to vetted opposition commanders, it might break the stalemate.

"One of the big advantages of the regime is air control," Vaisse said. "Once one or two jets are downed, conditions may change."

This brings us to the second major concern of the Obama administration: that sophisticated weapons might wind up in the hands of radical Islamists. "That is what has happened already," British Prime Minister David Cameron pointed out during a press conference in Brussels last week. With the most money and the best guns, Islamists are best positioned to capture such weapons from the Syrian army, or to buy them on the black market.

The CIA spent a year vetting non-Islamist opposition commanders and believed it knew whom such weapons could be delivered to. So why not deliver MANPADS to vetted commanders rather than wait for radical Islamists to get them?

And wouldn't it make far more sense to let the opposition create its own no-fly zone by using MANPADS rather than – as some Republican and Democratic senators now advocate – use U.S. bombers or troops?

At the Brussels Forum, Louise Arbour, head of the International Crisis Group, asked whether the French were prepared for the chance that Assad wouldn't bend despite their arming of the opposition. What would they do then?

That question is valid. But the more pertinent question is: What will Washington do if U.S. inaction results in a failed Syrian state penetrated by jihadis who will get their hands on Assad's weapons? France and Britain are willing to take a risk to try to prevent this. But they can't convince Assad – or Moscow – that his days are numbered unless the United States helps them shift the balance on the Syrian ground.

Reach Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com.

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Read more articles by Trudy Rubin



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