Britain and France are right to have provided themselves with the option to supply arms to the Syrian opposition, but they should refrain from exercising that option for the time being. By the same token, Russia should refrain from arms shipments to the Syrian government. There is some hope that there will be a peace conference in Geneva in June, to be co-sponsored by the United States and Russia; until then, nobody should up the ante.
On Tuesday, the European Union ended the embargo that prevented any of its member from shipping arms to the Syrian rebels, to the dismay of some EU countries, such as Sweden. In the past week or so, the government of President Bashar al-Assad appears to have somewhat strengthened its position. It would be catastrophic if the opposition were to start crumbling; the punitive tendencies of the Baathist regime in Damascus would then show no bounds.
The Russian ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, unhelpfully said on Tuesday that his country will proceed to deliver an anti-aircraft missile system to the Syrian government; similarly, the deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, claimed that the delivery would help to restrain foreign intervention and discourage “certain hotheads.” This may be largely posturing; in fact, Russia has been dragging its feet on delivering the anti-aircraft system since 2012, and it would not be up-and-running for some months. Moscow seems to be hedging its bets.
William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, was right to say that the end to the arms embargo was meant as “a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table.” Predictably, the Syrian foreign ministry accused the European Union of trying to obstruct “international efforts to contribute to the achievement of a political settlement.”
On the contrary, Britain and France are prudently opening up a possibility of a supply of arms, in order to encourage a negotiated settlement.