EU arms embargo to Syrian rebels? Who cares? Not François Hollande

Khaled Khodja, president of the “Syrian National Coalition” with François Hollande

François Hollande decided to deliver heavy weapons to Syrian rebels, despite the EU embargo.”

October 3, 2015

Translated from French by Tom Winter

Note: Les Crises reprinted this verbatim from Robin Ferner’s article in Slate-France which appeared in May. Current events make this timely today.

The French president confided it to the journalist Xavier Panon, who reveals that François Hollande decided to deliver heavy weapons to Syrian rebels, despite the EU embargo.

France provided arms to Syrian rebels in 2012 even though the European Union had imposed an embargo on such shipments. And it is president Hollande who said it himself in a book to be published May 13 in the Archipelago Press, entitled In the corridors of French diplomacy, from Sarkozy to Hollande, written by journalist Xavier Panon.

“We started when we had the certainty that they would end up in the right hands,” said the head of state to the author of the book, in May 2014.

Deliveries began at the end of 2012 while the European embargo, established in summer 2011, was still in force. It would be lifted at the end of May 2013.

This act in isolation forced some caution on the Elysee: Officially, France was only sending non-lethal equipment: flak jackets, encrypted communication tools, gas masks, night vision goggles. But what actually got delivered was quite another matter: 20 mm cannons, machine guns, rocket launchers, anti-tank missiles. Only anti-aircraft missiles remained taboo. François Hollande did not send any because they would prove too dangerous if the jihadists were to get them.

A thousand and one precautions

Weapons were sent thanks to the care of the DGSE (Directorate General for External Security). The French were walking on eggs since it was a matter of being sure the weapons would reach the right destination … and that these transfers would not be caught in flagrante delicto by the international community. Delivery dates were very irregular and precautions were many.

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First, discrete suppliers had to be found, and all signs of origin had to be erased before the weapons got shipped. And how to be certain of their reception by the Free Syrian Army, then led by General Salim Idriss, privileged communicant of the Elysee? The French services used their own networks, the other networks seemed to them less reliable.

Out in public, France was busy in a dance of hesitance, dithering on the issue of weapons. Once, March 15, 2013, the Elysée tried to get the EU embargo lifted, and to get its European partners to send arms but on the 28th François Hollande backpedaled:

“We are not providing weapons as we do not have the certainty that these weapons will be used by the legitimate opposition, quite separate from any terrorist groups.”

       “Delivering weapons without a       

   guaranteed destination is to be a co-


If French diplomacy is so embarrassed, it’s because of clashing with the procrastination of its European allies, even the United States was hesitant to participate in a new conflict in the Middle East. Especially as it becomes less and less readable month after month, pari passu with the rise of the jihadist groups. The confirmation that radical Islamists like Al-Nosra soldiers are in the anti-Assad front weakens the French position: it is now virtually impossible to take up arms delivery to Syria since it is the jihadists who tend to embody the Syrian revolution.

In his book, Xavier Panon transcribed the words of an official of the Quai d’Orsay:

“François Hollande and his minister were quite imprudent on Syria and the embargo. Not having the ability to actually affect the balance of power, the motive posture remains the moral one. But morality is rarely the good inspiration in foreign policy. Delivering weapons without a guaranteed destination is to be a co-belligerent. There are more reasons not to do it than do it.”

The action of France seems, anyway, have had little scope in the field. In 2015, Syria is still mired in a bloody war. An Elysée adviser admits to Xavier Panon:

“Yes, we provide what they need, but within the limits of our means and based on our assessment of the situation. Underground, you can only act on a small scale. With limited means, limited objectives. In the end, will our assistance will help the revolution win? No.”

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