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EU ponders next step toward arming Syrian opposition

June 14, 2013 at 6:06 PM   |   Comments

BRUSSELS, June 14 (UPI) -- Suddenly the European Union is pondering its next step now that it appears obstacles to arming Syrian rebels are falling away in light of intelligence assessments accusing the Assad regime of using chemical weapons.

London and Paris argued that a partial end of the arms ban would enable Syrian opposition groups to receive arms formally and on a stepped up basis. The opposition is already armed and funded by Western sources and Arab allies, but not to an extent that can tip the balance against President Bashar Assad's heavily equipped military machine.

Faced with the Anglo-French diplomatic offensive, the rest of the EU demurred and deferred, agreeing to meet again and to reconsider the ban. No one can blame the Europeans for hedging as they did, what with the costs of war and attendant risks to European security. But the timing, as it now turns out, wasn't on their side.

Although global U.S. power and its constellation of assets worldwide makes European participation in the Syria project appear secondary, in reality it is as critical as Arab bankrolling by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring Arab states.

Turkey's role will be crucial, too, which is why Europe was anxious for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to back down and make peace with an ever angrier, ever broader body of protesters.

Erdogan will now reconsider his obduracy over the patch of grass in Istanbul where he squandered his popular mandate, but a restless, unstable Turkey wasn't in any of the cards being shuffled for next steps in Syria. EU analysts hope continuing turmoil in Turkey won't emerge as a wild card in its calculations.

"The time has come for the United States to take decisive action in Syria," said Anthony H. Cordesman, who occupies the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"It cannot do so without running all of the risks that have existed since the crisis began. It cannot control all the arms it sends and some may fall into the hands of terrorists and extremists. It cannot control the government that emerges if Bashar Assad falls," Cordesman wrote in a commentary.

"It cannot be sure that an extreme Sunni Islamist regime will not emerge that will be more of a threat to friendly Arab states and Israel than Assad and make the prospect of a war between Sunnis and Shiites/Alewites in the Islamic world even worse.

"The United States cannot count on winning U.N. support or Russian tolerance or having the same nations and voices that call for U.S. action today not being critics tomorrow."

But, Cordesman argues, "there are times when the risks of inaction outweigh the very real risks of action. For all the talk of sarin and 'red lines,' the United States has far greater reasons for action than the scattered use of small amounts of chemical weapons that may have killed 140 people.

"In fact, the 'discovery' that Syria used chemical weapons may well be a political ploy," Cordesman said. "It seems very likely that the administration has had virtually all the same evidence for weeks if not months. The real reasons are the broader humanitarian issues involved and far more urgent U.S. strategic interests."

When Britain and France argued for a partial lifting of the EU arms embargo, European opposition against lifting the arms embargo echoed most of the points cited in Cordesman's commentary. At face value, Europeans are right to be apprehensive about getting involved although there are factions in Brussels hungry for EU's own war, one that will enable the 27-nation union to project its own group identity.

Cordesman points out that, put simply, Syria isn't just about Syria.

"The grim reality is that the Syrian civil war is part of a far broader power struggle that now ties the Levant and gulf together, can greatly aid Iran, can further divide Islam between Sunnis and minorities like Shiites and Alewites, and affects every U.S. friend and ally in the region.

"This does not, in any way, eliminate the risks in supporting and arming the Syrian rebels or guarantee that Assad's fall will end every aspect of the broader humanitarian crisis in Syria. But this set of worst cases is now far more acceptable than an Assad (and Iranian) victory."

For the project to work, however, the United States needs not only regional bases in Jordan and Turkey but "it needs European and Arab allies -- a mix of British, French, Saudi and UAE [United Arab Emirates] support."

In January, in what was one of the first major hints of an escalation of European involvement, NATO sent Patriot missile batteries to the Turkish border with Syria. It's a long border, about 650 miles, and with the batteries went NATO personnel needed to keep them ready.

Turkey also hosts the Free Syrian Army and with arms flows through the country likely to gain momentum, NATO's easternmost flank is ripe for a transformation.

EU strategists are said to be anxious that Turkey's internal political squabbles are resolved quickly and do not bring to the surface again the many enemies of secular democracy -- anarchists, Communists, Marxists and Islamists -- that nearly brought the Turkish republic to its knees and triggered a military coup in 1980.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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