The flow of sophisticated weaponry out of crisis-hit countries and into unstable regions is a major geopolitical issue for the European Union. In an arc stretching from the Sahel through the Horn of Africa to Syria, Europeans will increasingly be confronted with groups using arms sourced from crisis situations to overthrow governments, and, in some specific cases, to further ideologies openly hostile to European values. Weaponry – a lot of which was built in and sold by Europeans – means one thing in the hands of dictators such as Colonel Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, but quite another in the hands of aggrieved non-state actors. Before and after the 2011 Libya crisis a range of weapons including small arms and light weapons, rockets mounted on vans, man-portable air-defence systems and anti-tank weapons, explosives, grenades, and so on, found their way to the black market, to Tuareg fighters of the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad and to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It is estimated that out of the forty-thousand stockpiled weapons held by Colonel Gaddafi’s regime only five-thousand are now accounted for.
The munitions dump is manna from heaven for groups with a political grievance against the status quo in countries such as Mali. With the help of weaponry and training from time spent in Libya, terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and secular fighters such as the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad have shaken the power balance in Mali, triggering French military intervention. Of course, arms flows are not the only reason for the insurgence. Approximately 420,000 returnees from Libya to the Sahel region joined the arms proliferation, straining food stocks and shocking the region’s economic system. The Atlantic Alliance’s intervention in Libya is not the cause of this Sahel crisis, as some governments are suggesting, but years of land exploitation, food insecurity, economic inequality, political exclusion and, specifically in the case of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, also religious ideology.
But the arms proliferation is not just a problem in the Sahel. What happens if Mr. al-Assad is toppled in Syria? What happens to Syria’s Scud missiles, Iskander tactical ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missiles, tanks and man-portable air-defence systems? Moreover, what happens to Syria’s stocks of chemical weapons? If such arms move across Syria’s immediate borders they could strengthen the hand of groups such as Hezbollah or al-Qaeda or fall into Israel and Palestine. They could reach Kurdish rebels, the numerous political factions in Iraq or protest groups in Jordan and Egypt. Weaponry ending up on the black market may even find its way to places as far away as the Horn of Africa, the Caucasus or even Afghanistan. It should not be forgetten that Syria has many more weapons than Colonel Gaddafi ever did. The whole region is still undergoing political revolt and is marked by those underlying socio-economic grievances to which only arms seem to give voice.
What does this say about the case for intervention in civilian crisis situations such as Libya or Syria? Does keeping dictators on their thrones stop the arms proliferation to neighbouring countries? Halt the sale of weaponry to non-democratic States in the first place? Respond to the underlying political and economic conditions in areas with large arms stockpiles? Whatever answers are given to these huge and immensely challenging questions, it remains clear that the European Union is not presently up to this geopolitical challenge. While France brings its military to the situation in Mali, the European Union’s planned training mission to the country now appears underwhelming – training Mali’s military in international humanitarian law is hardly an adequate response to the power dynamic in the country. Only France’s Rafale combat aircraft and marines have shifted the terms of the whole sorry situation.
In the short-term the only feasible answer to arms proliferation in Mali is more numerous and more sophisticated firepower in order to shift the terms of the debate in favour of Bamako. Without security there can be no political settlement. Once the balance against rebel factions in the country has been restored then a longer-term political settlement is required, and this is where it gets really difficult. But what happens should a post-Assad scenario arise is unclear. In this case, a country like France or the United States will not readily intervene in the Middle East to restore balance, even though Israel may. Accordingly, it might not be feasible to use combat aircraft and marines to restore balance. Nor can it be assumed that the rebel groups in Syria will so readily destroy Mr. al-Assad’s arms dumps as and when they take them. What is clear is that any plan to halt arms proliferation (through intelligence, strikes with remotely-controlled aircraft, and so on) must be implemented swiftly and decisively in order to avoid a larger intervention such as that now taking place in Mali.