Advertisement

Syria's war may be fought with weapons from Europe

In March 2011 a group of teenagers scrawled anti-Government graffiti on a wall in the Syrian city of Daraa.

Fury at their arrest and torture coupled with growing disillusionment towards the Assad regime is credited as the starting point for the country's revolution - a revolution that has become a war and a war that may soon be fought with weapons supplied directly by European Governments.

View through the damaged windscreen of a bus shows in central Damascus in 2012 Credit: Reuters

Two years to the day since those young Syrians sought to convince others of the faults of their leaders - Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Hollande are seeking to convince leaders of the faults of their policy on Syria.

The European Council meeting in Brussels was meant to be about creating growth and jobs. But the headlines have all been about Syria as the UK and France try to change the arms embargo.

Nothing changes very fast here so it's a measure of just how much concern there is that Cameron and Hollande were able to force a discussion into the day's business.

David Cameron talks to France's President Francois Hollande today in Brussels Credit: Reuters

What they want is the right to supply arms directly to the Free Syrian Army - at the moment the EU sanctions policy means that no European nation can offer any lethal support to the Syrians.

Just a couple of weeks ago William Hague forced a relaxation in the sanctions to allow the unconstrained provision of technical assistance, in other words, training and support along with the supply of armour-plated vehicles and body armour but there's already a view that's out of date.

With Hollande speaking of unconstrained massacres those within the Prime Minister's party are describing the current situation as perverse. There's a growing feeling that sanctions, put in place to protect the civilian population may actually be harming them.

Assad is thought to be getting his weapons through Iran and Russia and using them against an enemy which is now unable to protect itself thanks to the policy of those who claim to support it. Not only does that leave the FSA and the wider population vulnerable it also plays into the hands of the other perceived Western enemy in this war, Islamist groups like the Al Nusra Front.

Damaged vehicles at the site of an explosion in Damascus last March Credit: Reuters

There's no doubt Western leaders are horrified by what's happening to Syria and its people - but they are equally concerned about the growing power of Islamist groups over there. It's a fear which fuels their wish to become involved but also offers one of the biggest problems. How can arms be supplied to the FSA without them falling into the hands of those who fight alongside them but with a very different ideology?

Last week the leader of the FSA Brigadier General Salim Idris was here in Brussels begging for help. With no UN arms embargo, Europe is the only organization standing in the way of a steady flow of weaponry. When I spoke to him there was no hiding his frustration - but whilst on one level his argument was convincing on another it did little to allay fears.

Al Nusra is not a part of the Free Syrian Army but we are not against their participation. Their fighters are on the front line, they are paying dearly through their losses but they are trained fighters, they have the financial and other where-with-all. We have intellectuals and thinkers. We need them if we don't have our own weapons and that's why we need an end to the arms embargo, he said.

According to the General, the longer the FSA are without weapons, the more they depend on Al Nusra and the stronger that Front becomes. He went on to say that such was the structure within the FSA that any arms given out would be logged and returned with no risk of falling into the wrong hands.

You give us ten weapons we will give you ten back at the end, he said. You don't have to be an expert in warfare to realise the unreality of that sort of a comment. Aware of the dangers post-Libya that is likely the biggest sticking point for any change in the embargo.

And so it falls to Cameron and Hollande to convince the others like Germany, Austria and Sweden to move towards their view. If not they will have to decide whether to strike out on their own. Today's talks are unlikely to be decisive but the importance of them cannot be underestimated.

With or without support the UK and France the odds must be that within weeks Syrian fighters will be doing battle with British and French supplied weaponry.

More on this story