23rd Oct 2016

UK and France: only weapons will make al-Assad talk

  • FSA fighters counting bullets - rebels currently use what they can capture or buy on the black market (Photo: a.anis)

Britain and France have said the only way to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to talk is to threaten him with arming rebels.

The foreign ministers of the EU's top military powers - William Hague and Laurent Fabius - made their case in a joint letter, seen by EUobserver, sent to EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton on 21 March.

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They said the EU should exempt the National Coalition, an opposition umbrella group, from its arms embargo on Syria when the ban is reviewed in May.

They underlined that they want peace talks.

But they noted "the regime has yet to show readiness to engage in a genuine transition process or in meaningful political dialogue."

They added: "It is only by increasing the pressure on the regime that we can help bring them to the negotiating table and keep open the prospect of a political solution. This decision is not - and this is the key - an alternative to a political resolution, it is an essential enabler."

They warned that the status quo will see more killing and more escalation.

They said "there is a cruel imbalance between the forces in the field, causing ever more civilian casualties" and that "the opposition needs to be able to protect the areas it controls."

They noted that jihadists are flocking to Syria, that refugees are causing instability in neighbouring countries and that they "are increasingly concerned about the regime's willingness to use chemical weapons."

The Anglo-French appeal did little to end EU divisions at foreign ministers' talks in Dublin on Friday (22 March).

Speaking after the event, Ashton said: "If you were in the room, you would have heard many, many contributions about what we can do."

Some countries openly disagreed with Britain and France.

Germany's Guido Westerwelle said he is "still reluctant on delivery of offensive weapons." Eamonn Gilmore of Ireland, the EU presidency, noted "the more guns that get into Syria … the more casualties there will be."

Britain and France previously threatened to veto the renewal of the Syria sanctions if they do not get their way.

But if it comes to that, it would cause a major mess.

The EU sanctions package also covers visa bans, asset freezes and a ban on Syrian oil imports.

If it goes in the bin, member states would have to create 27 national-level measures on how to control arms transfers and how to stop al-Assad's people from travelling, using their money and selling oil.

The nay-sayers' main concern is that Western weapons might end up in the hands of extremists.

The Anglo-French letter described the National Coalition, which embraces the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel fighting force, as "genuine[ly] moderate and democratic."

The Liberal group in the European Parliament recently brought the FSA's commander in chief, Salim Idriss, to Brussels to talk to MEPs and diplomats.

Ashton on Saturday said only that she and Idriss "discussed the kind of support that he needed."

But for his part, Liberal leader and former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt, one of whose advisors in February spent several days with the FSA in Syria, believes Idriss is the right man for the EU to back.

"We are stronger as a Union if we act together. But a Union of indecision is an invitation for member states to act alone," he said after the Dublin talks.

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