Every week leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.

As the Syrian conflict enters its third year, our experts assess whether Europe should send weapons to the country’s opposition forces. Most agree that it should.


James DavisDirector of the Institute of Political Science, University of St. Gallen

Responsible for 70,000 deaths and more than a million refugees, the Syrian government has clearly failed to meet its responsibility to protect its citizens, and is therefore in breach of its duties as a member of the United Nations.

Nonetheless, Syrian government forces continue to receive arms deliveries from Russia and Iran. A strong case could be made for withdrawing UN recognition of a regime that has abrogated its sovereign responsibilities, recognizing the opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and lifting the arms embargo in order to make this a fair fight.

As strong as the case might be, however, it is unlikely to persuade Russia, China, or indeed Iran, which would all be tempted to enhance their arms deliveries to the dictator in Damascus.

Since meaningful UN Security Council action in support of the opposition is unlikely, a different approach is needed. Given the emerging consensus that sovereignty entails a “responsibility to protect,” the Arab League should be encouraged to withdraw recognition of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It should also impose a no-fly zone over Syria to stop the most lethal attacks on civilians and prevent further air strikes on Lebanon.

The EU and NATO could provide material and logistical support to such an effort without directly engaging in enforcement operations. Although not in keeping with the letter of the UN Charter, this approach is consistent with contemporary interpretations of international law as applied to regional and human security.


Koert DebeufRepresentative of the ALDE group of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament

Europe should arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA). That is my conclusion after visiting Syria three times in the last month. We have to arm the rebels now and for three reasons.

First, two years after the start of the Syrian conflict there is finally an organized Syrian opposition, led by Moaz al-Khatib, with credibility within Syria. There is also a well-structured FSA. I have seen firsthand how the army works, both at its headquarters and on the ground.

The aim of the opposition coalition and the FSA is sincere: to build a free and democratic Syria for all Syrians. If we do not support the opposition, we are giving our backing to Assad’s criminal regime and the jihadists, who have money, weapons, and experience. But neither has the support of the Syrian people. Arming the FSA means supporting the Syrian people and their desire to live in a free and democratic country.

The second reason to provide arms is to halt Assad’s destruction of the country. He is targeting citizens and cities with ground-to-ground missiles and bombs dropped from planes. We can only stop this catastrophe if we arm the FSA with the right weapons. Assad’s army is fighting from a distance because no Syrian soldier wants to die for him. They are fighting a “safe war.” If flying becomes dangerous, planes will stop bombing. Arming the FSA will reduce the level of destruction and shorten the war.

The third motive is to accelerate the process toward a political solution, a negotiated end to the madness, and a peaceful transition—the generally preferred outcome. Assad learned his politics from Iran and Russia. As long as he sees the possibility of victory, he will never negotiate.


Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

The issue of whether or not to arm the Syrian opposition is both thorny and divisive for Europe.

As always when it comes to European intervention in armed conflicts, divergent views emerge because of opposing principles among EU member states. Countries like Sweden are neutral, while Germany has a policy of not providing weapons—let alone troops—for armed conflicts. These are strongly held and deeply rooted principles. France and the UK, for their part, are considering supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition in order to restore a balance between the two sides’ military strength.

From an operational point of view, an endless theoretical discussion can be had over the expected benefits of arming the Syrian opposition versus the possible adverse effects. The core political question, in a nutshell, is the following: How long can Europeans stand idly by, watching an ongoing massacre while countries like Russia and Iran supply the Assad regime with sophisticated weaponry and, in some cases, troops?

Such support allows the Assad regime to continue its indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas and its use of excessive force, contrary to all humanitarian rules for conflict situations.

At this stage of the Syrian conflict, the issue is not one of securing a military victory, but of establishing a genuine dialogue between opposing sides. That is the only way to prevent Syria from descending into predictable and lasting chaos and the Syrian people from enduring more suffering.


Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations

Europe will certainly supply weapons, ammunition, and money to the forces fighting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

But it won’t be the EU institutions acting in a centrally coordinated way; rather the war chest will be raised by individual member states or third parties, with the EU’s silent consent. Yet again, the EU will fail to speak with a single voice, or to punch with a single fist, in issues of defense and foreign policy.

Look at what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s, Iraq in 2003, or Libya in 2010–13. There is still no single European seat at the UN Security Council—but don’t hold your breath, because a divided Europe still prevails in the mindsets of the continent’s foreign ministries.

So I’m afraid that the answer—as always when it comes to EU foreign policy—is: yes, no, and maybe—but only up to a point.


Shimon SteinInternational consultant and former Israeli ambassador to Germany

As long as the prospects of a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis remained realistic, arming the rebels would not have helped the international community to find such a solution. As those prospects fade by the day, the question of whether to provide arms becomes increasingly pertinent.

Notwithstanding the reservations of Catherine Ashton and a number of EU foreign ministers, it seems that neither the opposition nor the Assad regime is able to prevail militarily. Arming the rebels—thereby strengthening their military capability—might help to tilt the balance in their favor and bring about an end to the bloody conflict.

The argument that by lifting the arms embargo the EU may encourage Russia and Iran to supply weapons to government forces doesn’t hold water. Neither Russia, Iran, nor Hezbollah have stopped providing military support, nor are they likely to, because there is a lot at stake for them.

Following the lifting of the embargo, the EU and NATO should consider a (gradual) military intervention in the conflict, even without endorsement by the UN Security Council. It’s time for the EU to take clear decisions. In the long run, the costs for the EU and the region of sending arms—and, if need be, intervening militarily—outweigh the costs of abstaining.


Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy

Recent EU Council meetings have demonstrated that there is no possibility of a common EU position on the Syrian conflict. While there may be some marginal changes in Western policies on this issue, Europe and the United States have made their position clear. They will ride out the storm and then help to pick up the pieces.

While it may be true that Russia and Iran continue to back the Assad regime, their involvement is unlikely to restore the support that is ebbing away from the government in Damascus. That would leave Moscow and Tehran as the big losers, no matter the outcome in Syria.

The West will be left facing a destabilized and dangerous region in which it will have limited influence. This promises to be a very Middle Eastern outcome, which will produce few winners and more losers.