Thursday September 18, 2014
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18.09.2014
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Deepening diplomatic crisis between Israel, Russia over arms to Assad
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Boaz Bismuth

Divide and conquer

While in Paris on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attacked the European Union's decision to lift the embargo on the sale of weapons to the Syrian rebels, saying it contradicted international law. Lavrov's deputy Sergei Ryabkov accused European leaders of "fanning the flames" of the conflict in Syria, while at the same time confirming that his country would supply the Syrian government with advanced anti-aircraft missiles. As if this was not enough, Russia also insisted that Iran take full part in the Geneva peace conference scheduled for late summer, at which the world will search for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. The bottom line is that Russia is standing very firm.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Lavrov on Monday. Kerry is cooperating with him on organizing the Geneva conference. During the meeting, Kerry said it is the Syrian people who need to determine their fate. Kerry's boss in the White House, Barack Obama, has said that the U.S. wants to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of power, but the U.S. is helping to organize a conference in which representatives of the rebels and the Assad regime participate. The bottom line is that the U.S. is very confused.

Influenced by Britain and France, the EU on Monday lifted the arms embargo on the Syrian rebels. Yet, the 27 EU foreign ministers failed to agree on actually selling any weapons to the rebels. The EU believed, with a certain naivete, that its decision to lift the embargo would produce pressure on Assad. But to not torpedo the diplomatic process, EU countries will not supply the rebels with any weapons. The bottom line is that the EU is not very convincing.

The Syrian story is complicated, both militarily and diplomatically. Assad has understood this for a long time now and has skillfully used the divisions within the international community to survive. But we are stuck with Assad not only because of Russia, but also the rebels themselves. Fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army are jihadists and al-Qaida operatives. The West knows that while it would be easy to arm the rebel militias, it would be hard to disarm them later. America's goal right now is not to topple Assad, but rather to prevent the accumulation of power by jihadist militias affiliated with al-Qaida. Given the current reality, a sudden fall of Assad could be threatening to the West.

The U.S. is not enthusiastic about arming the rebels either. It remembers how the Stinger missiles it gave to the mujahideen in Afghanistan were turned against American forces a decade later. Not to mention the weapons provided to the rebels in Libya, which ended up in the hands of jihadists in Africa's Sahel region. Paradoxically, Assad's enemies are helping him survive.

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