The Anglo-French overhaul of the EU arms embargo on Syria may well turn out to be a turning point in this increasingly bloody conflict. But this should not be taken as a good sign. The move was justified by the Foreign Secretary William Hague as necessary to encourage a ‘diplomatic solution’ to the war by emboldening ‘moderate’ elements of the disparate anti-Assad opposition. Yet the result of the protracted negotiations in Brussels earlier this week has the potential to turn a domestic rebellion into an externally-funded proxy war that could have a significant impact upon the longevity of violence and the wider politics of the region.
The intensification of President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on dissident groups, including massacres of civilians in the towns of Homs and Houla prompted intense diplomatic debate about the necessity and viability of launching a direct military intervention, potentially under the auspices of the United Nations, to put a stop to the atrocities. Since hostilities broke out the warring factions and their allies have spoken repeatedly about a desire to turn the conflict in Syria into a war by proxy. As far back as February 2012 an Arab League-sponsored ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Tunisia saw the anti-Assad Syrian National Council (SNC) lobby the delegates of the 70 nations present to allow them to import weapons in order for them to take their fight to the Syrian army and pro-government militias.
Even before the reversal of the EU weapons sanctions, both the friends and enemies of Assad’s regime have resorted to indirect intervention in Syria as stalemate at the UN Security Council stalled the possibility of direct intervention. Britain and the United States have already provided millions of dollars-worth of what was labelled ‘non-lethal equipment’ (such as communications devices) over the past year. Allies of President Assad, namely Russia, have also been developing proxy methods by which to bolster their ally. Despite Kremlin denials, shipments of Russian-made weaponry have been intercepted on its way to Syria. Most worryingly of all is the influx of Hezbollah fighters into the country. This has provided Assad’s army with a boost of surrogate manpower and underlines the complex regional picture into which the EU is now wading.
The dangers of Syria’s metamorphosis into a protracted proxy war are contained within a threefold set of consequences for those involved. First is the danger of long-term dependence. Even if the Assad regime falls, any new rulers of Syria may indeed owe their status to decisive amounts of military and financial aid from Western states. This reliance may not necessarily end once a potential victory has been secured. On-going financial support will inevitably be needed to rebuild vital Syrian infrastructure. The EU will certainly have to assess how much involvement it would be willing to have in Syria if and when Assad goes. With a large post-civil war nation-building effort on its hands, any post-Assad government is going to receive offers of help that could spill over into outright dependence if indirect influence over politics in Damascus continues once the war is over.
The second major consequence of the EU’s green light for weapon shipments to the rebels is the elongation or intensification of the violence. There is often an assumption on behalf of interventionist powers that the adoption of a proxy war strategy is the quickest way to bring a war to a swift end by indirectly allowing one side to gain an advantage in terms of manpower, training or weaponry. But the understanding that proxy interventions actually prematurely end an existing conflict belies evidence that on the whole they actually prolong such conflicts largely because a weak warring faction is boosted to the point of creating stalemate. A flood of weapons or surrogate forces into an existing warzone gives one or other of the parties involved further motivation and support to fight on, not collapse or seek negotiation. With Britain and France now boldly declaring their desire to ship arms to the insurgents, Syria seems destined to endure a bloody extension of its civil war.
“My enemy’s enemy is my friend”
Finally, it is worth considering how proxy interventions create the conditions for conflict over-spill and ‘blowback’. To a large degree the recent EU decision is based on the crude political assumption that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ Yet this policy runs the severe risk of creating unintended, counter-productive consequences once the war is over. Such ‘blowback’ can be high profile or subtle, immediate or delayed in its manifestation. The nature of likely ‘blowback’ in the Syrian case can only be speculated upon but the potential for its occurrence seems to have played little or no part in the policy calculations of William Hague or his French counter-part Laurent Fabius.
The absence of an endgame to the proxy war in Syria and the potent dangers of interfering in Middle Eastern politics should encourage EU foreign ministers to reflect more deeply on the long-term implications of initiating short-term proxy wars and caution against the expedient use of indirectly intervening in the wars of others. The decision from Brussels to try and influence the war in Damascus could come back to haunt the corridors of European power.
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