Protests in Syria, June 2011
This article was first published in Defence Management Journal, August 2011
Four UN arms embargoes are currently in force in the Middle East and North Africa, targeting Libya and Iran as well as non-government forces in Lebanon and Iraq. A European Union (EU) arms embargo is also in place against Syria.
On 26 February 2011 , UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1970 imposed an arms embargo against Libya and put in place sanctions on members of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi's inner circle, while Resolution 1973 adopted on 17 March authorized a no-fly zone over Libya. Previous UN and EU sanctions on Libya, including arms embargoes, had been lifted in 2003 and 2004 after Libya announced that it had ended its nuclear, biological and chemical weapon programmes.
A range of UN sanctions is in place against Iran, including bans on arms sales and transfer of technology. In June 2010, the UNSC approved fresh restrictions, including prohibiting Iran from buying heavy weapons such as attack helicopters and missiles.
The EU imposed an arms sales embargo on Syria on 9 May 2011, as part of efforts intended to force Damascus to end violence against anti-government protesters. The embargo covers weapons, military vehicles and equipment, spare parts and ammunition, and equipment that could be used for internal repression.
Libya embargo violations
The UN and EU arms embargoes are impacting the two countries targeted in 2011 in different ways.
In Syria, whose main arms suppliers are Iran, Russia and China, troops already have plenty of military equipment to use since pro-democracy protests flared in March 2011. The effects of the EU arms embargo are limited, and events are more likely to be affected by international diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions.However, there are reports that the smuggling of small arms from the black market in Lebanon to Syria has soared. Lebanese arms dealers, most of them working under the protection of political parties, have supplied light and medium weapons not only to Syrians but also to Lebanese fearful of violence spilling over into their country. Syrian activists, for their part, have denied using weapons during protests against government troops.
Tensions have escalated between Syria and its neighbour Turkey, which opened its borders to Syrian refugees fleeing embattled border towns. As a NATO member, Turkey has contributed naval vessels to patrols enforcing the UN arms embargo in Libyan waters, although it not taken part in air raids.The UN arms embargo on Libya has been more controversial than the EU-Syria one. It has produced sharply opposed views over interpretation, as well as confusion over its precise scope. While some sides maintain that arming the anti-Gaddafi opposition technically violates the embargo, others argue that the UN sanctions apply only to the government.
Despite NATO AWACS planes and more than 20 ships patrolling the Central Mediterranean to enforce the embargo, there have been many reports of rebels bringing weapons into Libya, including within supposed aid shipments, or in small consignments across the border from Tunisia. The rebel forces have also been supplied with weapons by France and Qatar, among others. The French military confirmed that in June, it had air-dropped weapons to rebels fighting government forces in the highlands south of Tripoli, the first time France admitted arming the rebels.
Russia accused France of committing a "crude violation" of the UN weapons embargo by arming the rebels. The UK said diplomatically that, in its view, "the UN resolutions allow, in certain limited circumstances, defensive weapons to be provided".The UK, along with France and Italy, has deployed military advisers with the rebels, and has sent body armour, uniforms and communications equipment to police officers in rebel-held areas. There have also been reports of US teams operating covertly inside Libya. As for the pro-Gaddafi forces, they have reportedly received missiles and grenade launchers from Iran, as well as 500 "military grade" vehicles supplied by Algeria.
The lack of security across large parts of Libya has also raised fears over weapons falling into the hands of hostile forces in the wider region. The US, other Western governments and Libya's neighbours, notably Algeria, are concerned that stockpiles of weapons and ammunition at former military bases in eastern Libya abandoned by Gaddafi's troops after NATO air strikes could be sold on to militant groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), or organized crime cartels.
Enforcing arms embargoes invariably involves political as well as practical difficulties.
There are very few provisions for the UN to punish violators, other than normative condemnation. Christian Le Mière, Research Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said: "This is particularly true for the world’s major arms exporters, who are all coincidentally the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, with veto power." Generally, veto wielders Russia and China are reluctant to agree with UN sanctions.
In the Libyan case, the sanctions were imposed in great haste and the UNSC did not anticipate the stalemate and potential partition of the country.
With hindsight, "it was not the best idea to impose an arms embargo on the entire country which technically prohibits support to the anti-Gaddafi forces", said Thomas Biersteker, Professor of International Security and Conflict Studies at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.
Arming the Libyan rebels might possibly be defensible in law, based on the letter of the relevant UN resolutions, but doing so is politically very questionable, in the vierws of Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). "It will undermine the chances of getting China and Russia to agree on future UN arms embargoes if such a legalistic approach is taken. If it was the intention of the sanctions to allow rebels to receive arms, that should have been stated clearly in the resolutions," he added.
As regards enforcement of embargoes in practice, many prohibited arms are likely to get through controls undetected. Weapons, particularly small arms and light weapons, can easily be hidden in shipments. The volume of global trade makes it impossible to verify the content of every shipping container, while air transport can use falsified documents to mislead regulators about the destination of a particular cargo.
Professor Peter Wallensteen of Uppsala University, one of the authors of a 2007 report on the impacts of UN arms embargoes, believes that they are a good instrument that the international community should save for the right conditions where they are likely to succeed.
"There is often a tendency with this kind of sanctions, as well as with other kinds of sanctions, that they are generated more for domestic reasons, to appeal to public opinion and so on, rather than thinking whether they will be an effective tool," he argues.
The UN arms embargo on Libya could prove costly to the global arms industry if NATO's campaign is scaled down and Libya becomes mired in a low-intensity civil war.
Russia's Interfax news agency quoted military sources as saying that Russia could lose up to 3.8 billion dollars in confirmed or possible orders as a result of the ban on arms sales to Libya.
According to EU figures, in 2009 member states granted export licences worth 490 million dollars to Libya. Italy was a prime source for border surveillance and security equipment, and several Italian firms had signed or lined up deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The UK was not a major supplier of weapons to Gaddafi's forces, even before the British government revoked arms export licences this year. Since January 2011, more than 160 export licences for Middle East countries have been revoked, mainly for Libya and Bahrain.