Syrian Civil War: The Arms Trade & Political Acceleration
Yesterday the European Union passed a resolution that lifted several of the embargoes that have been placed upon Syria over the course of its two year civil war. The EU, under the pressure of France and the UK, said that it would now be legal for countries to supply the Syrian rebels with weaponry. The vote has turned the EU on its head, with France and the UK voting in the affirmative and the other 25 member states opposing the measure. And, with such a diluted victory Foreign Secretary William Hague has had to quickly stop the hawkish rhetoric for supplying the rebels with arms. So, essentially, the European Union has stumbled into a provocative action with no intention of following through.
But, with the passage of the resolution, the damage has been done – Moscow, seeing the lifting of the embargo as a threat to the status quo in Syria has vocally and publicly amped up their intention of sending anti-aircraft systems to the Assad regime (S-300s). By doing so, Moscow has come into conflict with Israel, just weeks after Netanyahu and Putin had cooled relations with talks in Moscow. This morning, Russia was rebuked by the Israeli defense secretary, who said that Israel would not hesitate to prevent the shipment of heavy weaponry to Damascus and the government forces in Syria.
With Russia and Israel at such a critical head, the world began to work to avert crisis. The United States’ State Department blasted Russia’s insistence on shipping arms to the government. From there, rumors began to circulate that President Obama was asking the Pentagon to draw up plans for a no-fly zone over Syria. From there, reports began to surface that some of the shipments may have already been delivered, meaning that Syria, unlike Libya, with their archaic air defense systems, would be able to prevent the imposition of a US or NATO air operation. With the world on edge and the possibility of a Russo-Israeli war, it seems as if Putin blinked and backed down from overt shipment of advanced air-defense systems. Many speculate that this could mean the word coming out of Moscow was just retaliatory rhetoric in response to the act of the European Union, or that Moscow had already delivered the air defense systems, and was just testing the waters, seeing if Israel would be open to allowing more shipments to be made in a public matter.
It is clear that the Middle East is tense, and European intervention is adding fuel to the fire. Russia has spent a lot of their political capital to insure that the Assad regime is maintained and buying Russian weapons. With Iran and Hezbollah increasing their public support, it is possible that Moscow wants to insure that they remain in the ear of Assad so, in the post-war period, they can have leverage, thus allowing them to maintain their Mediterranean base. On the other side of the Syria issue, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been providing large amounts of support to the rebels, and it is possible that France and the United Kingdom have thrown the European Community into the public battle in order to have control of the future of the rebel movement – especially after the terrorist attacks in their capital cities that have many people questioning the radical elements of the rebellion. In short, France and the UK believe, like Russia, that if they fund their respective partners they can control the ideology and outcome of the war.
Israel, it seems, wants to avoid the importation of large weapons systems because, after the Civil War has concluded, the weapons will still be in country, and, most likely, they will be in the hands of a movement that has anti-Jewish sentiment. And, on top of that, Israel wants an environment where Syria cannot defend itself from an air attack, so, in the event of chemical weapons use, or the transportation of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel can strike without impunity. Last month Israel made international headlines, when they launched a night raid on a chemical weapons facility, drawing a lot of attention from Russia and Iran – who both pledged to never allow such an attack to happen again. Iran, unable to provide defense systems, moved their offensive weapons to the west, and Russia, as we have seen, began to step up weapons deliveries. If the Syrian defenses go into action, Israel will be unable to run low-risk operations and will have to resort to using their missile arsenal. This action could prompt an Iranian retaliation, thus escalating a crisis in the Middle East.
Today, the world avoided a crisis. Today Russia backed down, but that does not mean the conflict is over. Though the reports are not numerous, the anti-air systems may have already made their way into Syria – and, if that is true, the conflict will continue to heat up. If there is a large weapons shipment heading towards Lebanon, or if Hezbollah continues to antagonize Israeli forces stationed on the border, Israel will launch another air raid into the country. If Israeli planes are shot down by Russian made weaponry, Moscow will face isolation and scrutiny on the international stage, and public opinion and rage will force Netanyahu to expand operations into Lebanon and Syria. In short, the Syrian Civil War, having raged on for more than two years, has already spilled over into Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq and has the potential to drag other states into a parallel conflict. John McCain visited Syrian rebels yesterday, as well. It is clear that the United States is going to expand their role in Syria. And, if France and the UK have, just by lifting an embargo without actual action, it is hard to fathom what will happen when a state does begin to import weapons to Syrian rebels in a public and dramatic fashion.