After months of prevaricating over arming Syria's rebels in their struggle against the tyranny of the Assad regime, EU member states are suddenly starting to change their tune.
Only last week EU foreign ministers confirmed the EU-wide arms embargo on all but non-lethal weapons, but the facts on the ground in Syria point to a long and bloody conflict in which both sides battle on for the foreseeable future, killing, wounding, imprisoning and displacing tens of thousands of innocent civilians. Under such circumstances, the embargo is fast losing its rationale. UN figures already put the number of dead at almost 100,000 with a million more refugees fleeing the fighting and winding up in poorly equipped camps on Syria's borders, at the mercy of international humanitarian aid channelled through the official Syrian Red Crescent which siphons off up to 70% of the supplies for government backed forces.
Last week I invited the Chief of Staff of the Free Syrian Army, Brigadier General Selim Idriss, to Brussels to tell us, first hand, about their fight for freedom. He underlined the desperate state of the refugee camps, the lack of food and medicine, the need for those fleeing the country to find temporary safe haven abroad and the urgent need for weapons to counter the daily bombardment from tanks and aircraft. With the right equipment, he said, the regime could be defeated in a month or so. Asked about western supplied weapons falling into the wrong hands, he assured us he could control, identify and distribute any arms supplied to the FSA and return them at the end of the conflict.
The West has already taken sides with the Syrian opposition and recognised the now united Syrian National Council. So the sooner that the Assad regime is toppled and the fighting ceases, the better. Even Russia has admitted that the rebels may indeed prevail. They already control much of the north of the country and have structures and plans in place to govern those areas. Furthermore, General Idriss committed to guaranteeing the unity of the country and respect all of the various religious and ethnic groups that make up Syrian society.
The Arab Spring has posed enormous challenges and crises of conscience for Europe and the US, given the leap of faith in allowing these countries to determine their own future and their own freedom. But the fear of the unknown should not be allowed to mask the risks of inaction. The vacuum left by western hesitation will be filled by radical jihadists imposing a new form of oppression.
Both France and Britain have now indicated that they are prepared to reconsider the embargo on arming the rebels. The German foreign minister has also announced a readiness to discuss the matter again. EU leaders must take a bold step to end the war in Syria and show they are prepared to be actors and not just spectators in determining Syria's transition to a more democratic country. How many more lives will be lost by postponing the decision until the arms embargo comes up for review in May?
Britain and France have shown their resolve and ability before to support the struggle against dictatorship in Libya. They must now do so again for Syria, though it would be far better if it can be achieved with the support and approval of their partners across the EU rather than going it alone.