Twenty-seven European Union foreign ministers left a meeting in Brussels this week bitterly divided on whether forces trying to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should receive outside military assistance. VOA’s Susan Yackee spoke on the subject with Chatham House Syria expert Christopher Phillips (audio below).
Susan Yackee: The European Union has come out split over whether to arm the Syrian rebels. What was your reaction to this announcement?
Christopher Phillips: It is not surprising; it reflects the trends that the different European Union members have been advocating on Syria for the last few months. There is a what you might call a ‘hawkish’ group led particularly by Britain and France. They are advocating lifting the arms embargo on Syria to ensure that rebels can be armed by European powers, whilst in the more ‘dovish’ camp we have Germany that is leading the group against [the lifting of] the arms embargo worried in particular that flooding Syria with weapons on either side will lead to regional spill-over into other countries.
“[S]ending weapons to the rebels might be interpreted not as a genuine attempt by the international community to try to tip the balance but as a means of trying to persuade Russia to shift its stance.” – Christopher Phillips, Chatham House
Susan Yackee: I realize you are an analyst, and analysts usually stay back, out of the fray, but let me ask your personal opinion. What do you think should be done? Should they arm the rebels?
Christopher Phillips: I think that Germany has a very valid point that sending weapons into this situation is not necessarily going to solve it. There is a major problem of not only with the weapons possibly moving from Syria to other regional conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, but also Jordan and Turkey. The other question is – what do we actually mean by ‘arming Syrian rebels?’ Who do we send these weapons to? It is all very well to say that we can initially send them to moderate groups. But who is to say that they might not change their politics once they have the weapons or, indeed, people with more radical politics take them off them. So, I think it’s very difficult to say that ‘arming the rebels’ is the solution to this crisis.
Susan Yackee: So you would agree with others that say that this is a very unique situation; it is not like it was in, say, Libya?
Christopher Phillips: Bear in mind that the Libyan rebels did not ‘win’ the civil war. They were greatly aided by air power from NATO; that is not the situation with Syria. Just by sending arms, that will not recreate the Libyan situation. If the West were willing to deploy the same amount of air power, then perhaps sending arms would actually end the Syria conflict more quickly but given that they are not willing to commit that kind of fire power, it seems to me that by sending arms to rebels, all they are doing is they are pouring fuel into the fire of the civil war rather than really beginning to seek a solution to it.
Susan Yackee: What is the solution?
Christopher Phillips: It seems to me – and I would argue that arming the rebels is part of this tactic – the talks behind closed doors, with Russia in particular to get it to stop its support of Assad is absolutely key. Now, sending weapons to the rebels might be interpreted not as a genuine attempt by the international community to try to tip the balance but as a means of trying to persuade Russia to shift its stance, saying: If you don’t come on board to some kind of peace agreement which should see Assad leave Syria or step down and a transition some into place, then we will make sure that the rebels are armed and the civil war goes on.
Susan Yackee is anchor and producer of VOA's audio podcast, Middle East Monitor. She has been a reporter in the Washington area for more than 35 years and regularly interviews newsmakers and analysts in DC and around the world. Susan works in television, radio and social media.