Syria: Proxy War Escalates as Russia Calls Out 'Hothead' Approach of Western Nations

Israel defense secretary, Moshe Ya'alon, left, with his US counterpart, Chuck Hagel. The EU has agreed to lift its arms embargo on Syria's rebels and the Russians responded by promising to send new missile systems to the Assad government. (Photograph: Reuters)

Syria: Proxy War Escalates as Russia Calls Out 'Hothead' Approach of Western Nations

Embargoes lifted, missile systems offered, and threats exchanged as peace talks near

Russia has responded to the European Union's decision to allow its arms embargo for Syria to expire by saying the move only adds "fuel to the fire" and that it will now deliver a high-precision missile system to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in order to counter the possibility of further intervention by "hotheads" in Europe, the US, or other nations.

The "hothead" comment is likely a specific reference to US Republican Sen. John McCain, who surprised many on Monday by appearing in Syria alongside rebel forces fighting against the Assad government. Known as one of the war-hungry hawks of the US political establishment, McCain has been advocating sending US weapons to the Free Syrian Army despite warnings that additional weapons will prolong the war by roadblocking the hopes for upcoming peace talks.

The European Union's lifting of the arms embargo occurred after a contentious battle in Brussels on Monday in which the UK and France won the day by allowing the ban on sending weapons to Syrian opposition forces to lapse.

Britain's foreign minister William Hague pushed hard for the lifted embargo, but says the UK and France will hold off on actual arms shipments until August.

"There are no easy answers when trying to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but sending more arms and ammunition clearly isn't one of them." -Anna MacDonald, Oxfam

However, as The Guardian's Julian Borger reports from Ankara, the lifting of the embargo threatens a flood of weapons on both sides, "raising the prospect of a rapidly escalating proxy war in the region if peace talks in Geneva fail next month."

Those peace talks remain in the planning stage, with Syrian opposition forces still uncertain of their participation and foreign nations still jockeying for positions at the negotiating table.

The debate at the EU meeting in Brussels highlighted the contradictory positions of its member nations, as the Guardian reports:

Senior European officials say much of the debate is "hypocritical" because some of the countries calling for a lifting of the embargo do not have the weapons to deliver or have no intention of taking part. They also point out that the White House and the State Department appear to be similarly split between hawks and doves.

And Reuters, pointing out how the Russian missiles could countervail possibility of western arms, adds:

Britain and France, which opposed renewing the arms embargo, have made clear they reserve the right to send arms immediately, despite an agreement by European countries to put off potential deliveries until August 1, but have made no decisions yet.

A senior French official said the S-300 was brought up at talks between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Monday.

"Obviously it poses a huge problem for us because if they deliver these weapons - they are ground-to-air missiles - and if we were to set up air corridors, then you can see the contradiction between the two," the official said.

Oxfam's head of arms control, Anna Macdonald, slammed the EU decision, saying: "Allowing the EU arms embargo to end could have devastating consequences. There are no easy answers when trying to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but sending more arms and ammunition clearly isn't one of them."

MacDonald continued: "Transferring more weapons to Syria can only exacerbate a hellish scenario for civilians. If the UK and France are to live up to their own commitments - including those set out in the new arms trade treaty - they simply must not send weapons to Syria."

Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said his government's decision to send Syria its S-300 missile system was a direct response to the EU decision.

"We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads from exploring scenarios in which this conflict could be given an international character with participation of outside forces," Ryabkov said.

It was not clear how many systems Russia would offer the Assad government or whether or not any deliveries have yet occurred.

Syria's neighbor Israel, in turn, responded to the Russian announcement by issuing with their own warning on Tuesday.

"The shipments haven't set out yet and I hope they won't," Moshe Ya'alon, the Israeli defense minister.

"If [the missiles] do arrive in Syria, God forbid," he added ominously, "we'll know what to do."

And addressing the ongoing US role in the Syria, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies Saul Landau says all efforts should be made to de-escalate the conflict, not exacerbate it. Urging against US intervention, Landau lays out his reasons:

President Assad has not threatened to attack the U.S. or allied governments, such as Israel; nor can he take an offensive stance while his government fights for survival. Indeed, Israel has twice bombed Syria in the last month, without retaliation.

Washington, however, has decided to aid the Syrian rebels, as it once armed Afghan insurgents in Pakistan. Thus, the U.S. played an inadvertent role in helping the now-despised Taliban emerge victorious in the 1990s.

Syria's civil war, an internal battle, got upgraded when Saudi Arabia and Qatar paid jihadists to fight against Assad. This influx of foreign warriors fueled the death toll, over 70,000, and helped force more than one million Syrians to become refugees.

Syria's struggle also confronts Washington again with the drama of the Arab Spring: pro-U.S. dictatorships in Arab countries vie with an amalgam of democrats, socialists, and religious authoritarians, a setting ripe for more conflicts.

This, taken with the growing contours of the regional possibilities of the war's spillover, Landau's prescription for the US is simple: "Stay out of Syria."


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