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Syrian arms embargo: Why more weapons to Syria is a mistake

Story highlights

  • Oxfam: Decision by EU to lift arms embargo on Syrian rebels a mistake
  • EU arms to Syria would escalate, not end, brutal conflic, says Macdonald
  • Macdonald: Civilians will pay highest price if EU arms sent into Syria

Syria is already awash with weapons. For many living there, conflict has become a sad fact of life and a heartbreaking phone call to hear the news of the death of a loved one to violence is all too common.

For more than two years, Syrians have watched as their country has tumbled into a state of bloody civil war. As the fighting has engulfed towns and cities across the country, an estimated 80,000 people have been killed, and more than twice as many have been injured. At least 1.5 million people, many wearing just the clothes on their back, have fled and sought refuge in neighboring countries, according to the United Nations.

Monday's decision by the European Union to lift the arms embargo on Syria could have devastating humanitarian consequences if it leads to any EU member sending arms or ammunition. Thankfully, no EU government has actually said it will do so for now. If it did, it would be far more likely to encourage an escalation of the violence, rather than do anything to end this brutal conflict.

Anna Macdonald

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The existing arms embargo, which ends Friday, has been in place for two years. Under this ban, the 27 EU member states have been forbidden to send arms to any warring party in Syria. The UK and other European countries already have arms export laws under the EU Common Position on Arms Transfers, and these must still be adhered to. But Monday's announcement means that EU states -- most likely Britain and France -- could choose to send lethal weapons to opposition forces after June 1.

The decision to lift this embargo is deeply flawed. Too many lives have already been lost and the escalation of violence must end. No government should transfer arms or ammunition to either the Syrian government or to the opposition. There is already clear evidence, from a variety of credible sources, that the Syrian army and associated forces have committed widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law and there is also evidence that some opposition groups have committed serious abuses as well.

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In fact, sending further arms into Syria would simply fuel the deadly arms race which is unfolding on Syrian soil, and it will be civilians who pay the highest price. Already, less than 24 hours after the EU's announcement on the embargo, Russia declared it intended to send anti-aircraft missiles to Syria immediately -- and there could be more to come.

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More than a decade of working on arms trade issues has taught me that while it may be straight-forward to physically transfer weapons to anywhere in the world, it is far harder to monitor how they will be used -- and whose hands they will ultimately end up in. The dangers of diversion are well-documented, and given the fractured nature of Syrian opposition groups, it would be virtually impossible to monitor whether transferred weapons would be used to commit violations and abuses.

Everyone agrees that it's time to end the bloodshed -- and though it will not be easy, diplomacy, not arms, has a more realistic prospect of bringing the violence to a halt.

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Instead of thinking about arming the opposition, the EU, like everyone else, should be channelling its efforts in a different direction. The EU has pledged to prioritize helping find a political solution to the crisis, so all thoughts should now turn to making the U.S.-Russia brokered peace conference, scheduled for mid-June, in Geneva, a success.

What is really needed -- from the EU, from Russia, from the U.S. and others -- is unity and an unequivocal stance that governments will do everything they can to find a political, not military, solution to Syria's civil war. As a first step, which would underpin any political process, rather than encouraging the transfer of more weapons to Syria, governments could use their influence to secure a halt to international arms transfers from all governments to any warring party in Syria.

Fuelling a conflict with more arms is not a problem restricted to Syria. Oxfam has been advocating to bring the arms trade under control for more than a decade and played a crucial role in the campaign to deliver an Arms Trade Treaty that was passed by overwhelming majority vote at the United Nations in April this year.

Under the new treaty, arms transfers must not be authorized where there is a major risk the weapons will be used to commit violations of human rights or international humanitarian law, among other risk-assessment criteria, which also include the risk of gender-based violence, diversion and undermining peace and security. All 156 states -- including the Europeans -- that voted in favor of this landmark treaty need to live up to its principles.

The Arms Trade Treaty, which opens for signature next week, won't solve the Syria crisis, but it may help prevent "future Syrias." And having fought hard for it, states -- including France and the UK -- have pledged to abide by its standards. Instead of increasing arms supplies, this should mean working to halt all international arms transfers to all warring parties in Syria.

They can then concentrate on facilitating a political solution, which meets the needs and interests of all Syria's communities -- as only this can end the crisis.