Will EU Sanctions Once Again Target the Civilian Population of Syria?



Under withering pressure from Washington and the UK, the European Union, is meeting this week to decide whether to increase the pressure on the Syrian public by repealing the March 2011 arms embargo that was intended to prohibit arms shipments to Syria. The arms embargo is set to expire at midnight on 31 May the lobbying has reach nearly historic intensity at EU HQ in Brussels, London and Washington.  Recently, the US State Department demanded that every one of the 27 European Ambassadors posted in the US appear at the State Department for “consultations to avoid any misunderstandings about what the White House was expecting at the upcoming EU meeting.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry has been urging the EU to gut the arms embargo so as to expedite weapon shipments to the rebels. It currently appears that Britain now has the support of France, Italy and Spain, while Germany appears neutral and Austria, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic are still opposed.

This week’s EU meeting, which was postponed three months ago, raises again the obligation of the international community to respect the laws of armed conflict and the Geneva Convention with respect to protecting the civilian population during armed conflicts and virtually every other international humanitarian law requirement.

For the American administration, designing and applying economic sanctions in order to pressure a population to break with the government to achieve regime change or any other political objective, as in the case of both Syria and Iran are fundamentally illegal under US law.

Just as soon as a group of Syrian-Americans and/or Iranian-American file a class action lawsuit in US Federal District Court ( the Court will have in persona and subject matter jurisdiction and the Plaintiffs will have standing to sue, given that they are American citizens) and the day after filing when they would no doubt file a Motion  petitioning  the Court for an Interim Measure of Protection (injunction) immediately freezing and lifting the US-led sanctions against the two countries civilian population, pending the final Court (Jury Trial) on the merits,  the Obama administration is going to face serious challenges to its outlawry.

William Hague, the UK Defense Minister, is quite active these days supporting the various Syrian militias’ arguments including that   “The EU arms embargo must be lifted because the current economic sanctions regime is ineffective.” Presumably the right honorable gentleman means by “ineffective” that these brutal sanctions have not broken with will of the populations to settle their own affairs without transparent foreign interference. This is true if by “effective” Hague means that the US-led sanctions, that target Syria’s civilian population for purely political purposes of regime change, will cause the people of Syria, who unlike their leaders, are the ones directly affected by the sanctions to revolt over the lack of medicines and food stuffs plus inflation at the grocery stores,

Mr Hague surely must be aware that very rarely, if ever at all in history, have civilian targeted sanctions designed to cause hardships among a nation’s population for purely political purposes actually broken the population such that they turned against their governments. Both the Syrian and Iranian sanctions have confirmed history’s instruction that the civilian targeting sanctions imposed from outside tend to have the exact opposite intended effect. This is true particularly modernly with more available information, and that the populations turn not against their national governments but rather against those foreign governments viewed as being responsible for these crimes.



The British, French, Turks and the Americans (not actually an EU member but then, who would know?) will be the zealots in Brussels this advocating amendment of the imposed arms embargo so that weapons can be sent to “moderate” forces in these countries largely nurtured and sustained “opposition”.

The UK Defense Ministers assurances that weapons would be supplied only “under carefully controlled circumstances” and with clear commitments from the opposition…We have to be open to every way of strengthening moderates and saving lives rather than the current trajectory of extremism and murder” have apparently convinced very few.

Unanimity is needed, and several countries are opposed. One Austrian official told the BBC that allowing lethal weapons to be sent into a war zone “would turn EU policy on its head.” One European diplomat insisted that “It would be the first conflict where we pretend we could create peace by delivering arms,” the diplomat said. “If you pretend to know where the weapons will end up, then it would be the first war in history where this is possible. We have seen it in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Weapons don’t disappear; they pop up where they are needed.”

Some of the 27 EU countries are concerned that anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons given to “moderate” militiamen (per Libya?) would end up Lord knows where, in the hands of  salafist, jihadist-takiferi militants, including those from the al-Nusra Front, which has pledged fealty to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Absence of a centralized command structure and massive human rights abuses by jihadist fighters are additional reasons for current alarm.

As is its habit recently, the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic service, has spoken on both sides of this critical issue. On the one hand it has cautioned against “any counterproductive move” that could harm the prospects of the Geneva conference and suggests extending the embargo to allow “more time for reflection”. On the other suggesting that lifting the arms embargo would only prolong the war.

The practice of targeting a civilian population by outsiders in order to achieve political objectives such as regime change is fast heading for the dustbin of history given its blatant violation of all norms of international humanitarian law and common decency reflected in the values most societies.

This week will reveal on which side of history the European Union will anchor itself on the issue of targeting civilian populations in a blatant attempt to achieve regime change.

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Syria and Lebanon and is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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