BEIRUT — Under withering pressure from Washington and the UK, the European Union met this week to decide whether to increase the pressure on the Syrian public by repealing the March 2011 arms embargo that was intended to prohibit arms shipments to Syria and whether or not to continue economic sanctions against the Syrian public.
On May 27, it decided to open the flood gate of arms into Syria and to keep the civilian-targeting economic sanctions in place.
Lobbying for scrapping the arms embargo, set to expire at midnight on May 31, had reached nearly historic intensity at the EU headquarters in Brussels, London, and Washington. Recently, the US State Department demanded that every one of the 27 European Ambassadors posted in the US appear at the State Department for “consultations to avoid any misunderstandings about what the White House was expecting at the upcoming EU meeting.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry had been urging the EU to gut the arms embargo so as to expedite weapon shipments to the rebels. It currently appears that Britain now has the support of France, Italy, and Spain, while Germany appears neutral and Austria, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic are still opposed. “Fine for him to say, but what is Washington willing to do?” one European foreign minister opposed to lifting the ban put it to BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet.
This week’s EU meeting, which was postponed three months ago, raised again the obligation of the international community to respect the laws of armed conflict and the Geneva Convention with respect to protecting the civilian population during armed conflicts and virtually every other international humanitarian law requirement.
For the American administration, designing and applying economic sanctions in order to pressure a population to break with its government to achieve regime change or any other political objective, as in the case of both Syria and Iran, are fundamentally illegal under US law.
Just as soon as a group of Syrian-Americans and/or Iranian-American file a class action lawsuit in US Federal District Court (the Court will have in persona and subject matter jurisdiction and the Plaintiffs will have standing to sue, given that they are American citizens) and the day after filing when they would no doubt file a Motion petitioning the Court for an Interim Measure of Protection (injunction) immediately freezing and lifting the US-led sanctions against the two countries’ civilian population, pending the final Court (Jury Trial) on the merits, the Obama administration is going to face serious judicial challenges to its outlawry.
William Hague, the UK Defense Minister, was quite active the past several days supporting the various Syrian militias’ arguments including: “The EU arms embargo must be lifted because the current economic sanctions regime is ineffective.” Presumably, the right honorable gentleman means by “ineffective” that these brutal sanctions have not broken with will of the populations to settle their own affairs without transparent foreign interference. This is true if by “effective” Hague means that the US-led sanctions that target Syria’s civilian population for purely political purposes of regime change will cause the people of Syria, who unlike their leaders are the ones directly affected by the sanctions, to revolt over the lack of medicines and food stuffs plus inflation at the grocery stores.
Mr. Hague surely must be aware that very rarely, if ever at all in history, have civilian targeted sanctions designed to cause hardships among a nation’s population for purely political purposes actually broken the population such that they turned against their governments. Both the Syrian and Iranian sanctions have confirmed history’s instruction that the civilian-targeting sanctions imposed from outside tend to have the exact opposite of their intended effect. This is true particularly modernly with more available information, and the populations turn not against their national governments but rather against those foreign governments viewed as being responsible for these crimes.
The British, French, Turks, and the Americans (the latter, not actually an EU member, but, then, who would know from its involvements in EU deliberations?) were the zealots in Brussels advocating amendment of the imposed arms embargo so that weapons can be sent to “moderate” forces in these countries largely nurtured and sustained “opposition”.
The UK Defense Minister gave his colleagues repeated assurances that weapons would be supplied only “under carefully controlled circumstances” and with clear commitments from the opposition.
Unanimity was needed to repeal the embargo and several countries were opposed. So it was allowed to lapse. One Austrian official told the BBC that allowing lethal weapons to be sent into a war zone “would turn EU policy on its head.” Another European diplomat insisted that “It would be the first conflict where we pretend we could create peace by delivering arms,” the diplomat said. “If you pretend to know where the weapons will end up, then it would be the first war in history where this is possible. We have seen it in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Weapons don’t disappear; they pop up where they are needed.”
Oxfam warned before and after the vote of “devastating consequences” if the embargo ends. “There are no easy answers when trying to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but sending more arms and ammunition clearly isn’t one of them,” the aid agency’s head of arms control, Anna Macdonald told the media this week.
The result of the predicted May 27 European Union meeting prevented the renewal of the arms embargo on Syria, raising the possibility of a new flow of weapons to various jihadist militias working with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, among others, to bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Sustaining a personal rebuke of sorts given that the EU did not affirmatively oppose the embargo as he had hoped, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, told the media after more than 12 hours of stormy talks: “While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate and worsen,”
As a claimed safeguard of some kind, according to EU officials, the European Union declared that member states who might wish to send weapons to Syrian rebels “shall assess the export license applications on a case-by-case basis” in line with the organization’s rules on exports of military technology and equipment.
Some of the 27 EU countries are now even more concerned that anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons given to “moderate” militiamen (per Libya?) would end up Lord knows where, in the hands of salafist, jihadist-takiferi militants, including those from the al-Nusra Front, which has pledged fealty to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The current embargo includes the following:
- Ban on export/import of arms and equipment for internal repression since May 2011
- “Non-lethal military equipment” and technical assistance allowed under certain conditions since Feb 2013
- All Syrian cargo planes banned from EU airports
- EU states obliged to inspect Syria-bound ships or planes suspected of carrying arms
- Assets freeze on 54 groups and 179 people responsible for or involved in repression
- Export ban on technical monitoring equipment
In February this year, EU foreign ministers agreed to enable any EU member state to provide non-lethal military equipment “for the protection of civilians” or for the opposition forces, “which the Union accepts as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people“.
Absence of a centralized command structure and massive human rights abuses by jihadist fighters asserting themselves as legitimate substitutes for the Assad government are additional reasons for the current alarm.
As is its habit recently, the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic service, has spoken on both sides of this critical issue. On the one hand, it has cautioned against “any counterproductive move” that could harm the prospects of the Geneva conference and suggests extending the embargo to allow “more time for reflection”. On the other, it is suggesting that lifting the arms embargo would only prolong the war.
The practice of targeting a civilian population by outsiders in order to achieve political objectives such as regime change is fast heading for the dustbin of history given its blatant violation of all norms of international humanitarian law and common decency reflected in the values of most societies.
This week revealed on which side of history the European Union has chosen to anchor itself on the issue of targeting civilian populations in a blatant attempt to achieve regime change. It affirmatively voted “to renew all the economic sanctions already in place against the Syrian government.”
One imagines, as surely the EU is aware, that officials are not suffering much from the economic sanctions, but rather it is the exactly those the EU claims to want to help, who will continue to suffer rises in the cost of living generally as well as the sanctions causing shortages of medicines and medical equipment as well as specialized cancer treatments and other medicines for seriously ill drug-dependant citizens.