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Tuesday, May 28, 2013 

Syria: where do you even begin?

For those taken with the question set for 13-year-olds seeking a scholarship to Eton, asking them to write a speech for a future prime minister justifying the shooting of unarmed rioters, here's another hypothetical situation:

For over two years, a foreign nation has been beset by a crisis. The emergency began when protests, inspired by regional upheaval, called for political reform. The authoritarian government responded by ordering the army to shoot the demonstrators. What then had began as a peaceful uprising morphed into an armed uprising, with those who had originally called for incremental change becoming increasingly marginalised and religious extremists taking their place. Adding to the problems is the religious background of the regime, which despite being secular, is predominately made up of those who belong to a minority sect. The conflict has now reached such a peak that it threatens the stability of the entire region, with a neighbouring country experiencing an upturn in intercommunal violence, a militia from another state intervening on the side of the regime and two other authoritarian states openly funding and supplying the rebels. What do you do to try and put an end to the conflict?

If your answer is anything other than make a concerted push for negotiations between the two sides moderated by a neutral third party, then you probably would have fit right in at Windsor. William Hague of course didn't attend the school of the choice for the children of the ruling class, he merely works alongside those who did. Thankfully, he did manage to pick up a degree in PPE from Oxford, and only someone blessed with those credentials could have come up with such a utter dog's breakfast as his policy on the above extremely thinly disguised non-hypothetical situation, aka Syria. It takes real courage and effort to come up with an approach that simply makes no sense whatsoever, and that's something you simply don't get from attending lesser establishments.

Never let it be said then that we don't at times get our own way in the EU. Despite the objections of 25 of the 27 member states, as we were backed only by France, Hague succeeded in getting the arms embargo on Syria lifted, or it will at least be allowed to lapse come the end of the July. Yet If we're to believe Hague this doesn't necessarily mean that we'll be arming any rebels any time soon. No, the intention behind our move was designed to put more pressure on Assad, who clearly has far more to fear from "moderate" forces than he has from the likes of the al-Nusra front or the myriad bands of Islamists, both of whom are far more heavily armed thanks to the largesse of our erstwhile allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The only problem with this argument is that, err, it's been subtly changed over the last week. Previously, threatening to arm the rebels was designed to bring the regime to the negotiating table. When the regime then did agree to a meeting with the rebels in Geneva with hardly any prompting, something the rebels have not yet signed up to, we had to make the change. I don't think anyone noticed.

It would somewhat help if Hague was to outline exactly who these "moderates" are that so desperately need our weapons. We don't know whether they're moderate Islamists, believers in liberal democracy, moderate leftists, just that they aren't extremists. The suggestion seems to be that we're thinking of someone like Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army. Considering that the FSA is neither free nor an army in the usual sense of the term, more a loose network of local militias, all of which will have different priorities and outlooks, this doesn't really inspire confidence that any supplied weapons wouldn't soon be in the hands of "extremists" also. Nor does Idris himself instantly strike as a model, err, "moderate": as well as warning today that the FSA would "take all measures to hunt Hezbollah, even in hell", he's also called for Lebanon itself to bombed.

Then there's another teensy problem. Exactly what in the way of weaponry is Hague proposing we supply? He presumably doesn't mean simple small arms, as Syria is awash with rifles and ammunition, despite the rebels having been complaining bitterly for months that there wasn't enough to go round. No, what they want and have been crying out for is heavy weaponry, manpads, anti-tank guns and the like. The very idea of this understandably alarms Israel, having twice already attacked convoys allegedly taking long-range missiles to Hezbollah. It should also alarm us: are we seriously thinking of sending weapons that can down planes into the middle of a civil war and hoping for the best? We've just spent the past week reacting in exactly the way extremists want to the murder of a single person. Should such weapons get in the hands of al-Qaida affiliates, it really would be something to worry about.

On almost every level I can think of, Hague's determination to at least get in a position where we can supply weaponry utterly baffles me. Previously when it looked as though the Ba'athist regime was slowly but surely on its way to extinction I cynically wondered if it was a ploy to get weapons into the hands of "moderates" so they would then be in a stronger position for a battle with the extremists for overall control of the country. With Assad now looking in a stronger position thanks to the continuing backing of Russia and the open intervention of Hezbollah, that seems less likely. It doesn't seem to be meant to ingratiate ourselves with either Qatar or Saudi Arabia, both of whom have no qualms about their weapons going to the extremists rather than the "moderates". It also isn't about weakening Iran, as the above kleptocracies had hoped, as Assad again seems unlikely to fall any time soon. It also can't be an attempt to show we aren't at war with Islam itself through supplying weapons to "good" Muslims to fight "bad" ones, as the only word it seems possible for Hague and friends to use to describe "our" rebels is moderates. Nor is it about protecting the civilians in the country who haven't fled, who we seem to have completely forgotten in all of this. The only thing that even slightly explains how we've ended up here is our continued riding on the coat-tails of US foreign policy; indeed, our role in this instance seems to be to make the running for open arming of "our" rebels as part of the process of persuading the American people it's a swell idea. Either that, or the Tories have become even more crazed in their neo-conservative yearnings than we'd imagined.

After all, you might have thought it would've dawned on the government by now that the invocation of the "responsibility to protect" in Libya was a disaster of a magnitude only slightly less than that of Iraq. Our determination to assist in the overthrow of Gaddafi not only emboldened Russia (and to a lesser extent China) to block any recurrence of the abuse of the UN process, it made abundantly clear to the remaining tyrants in the region that their only chance of remaining in power was through crushing any and all opposition. It also didn't help that we looked the other way as Bahrain destroyed the opposition movement there with the help of troops from such paragons of democracy as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. While the instability in Libya has spread to surrounding countries, the conflict has for the most part been non-sectarian. In Syria, the opposite has become the case. What may have began as an attempt to weaken Iran on the part of the Saudis and Qataris by funding Sunni rebels has metastasised into a full blown civil conflict which is having a devastating impact on both Iraq and Lebanon.

Despite all of this, or rather in spite of it, we still propose to send more weapons into a region which is overflowing with them and where hundreds of people are being killed every day, whether in car bombings in Iraq or in Aleppo, Homs, or Qusayr in Syria. Somehow, this gesture is meant both to persuade Assad to take negotiations seriously whilst also enabling our pet moderate rebels to "protect" civilians. Somehow, we've ended up on the same side as the jihadists we've spent the past 12 years fighting a "war" against, and yet we're claiming to be acting on the side of moderates and in the pursuit of freedom. Somehow, we've ended up pushing for the same policy as John McCain, who seems to want to be this decade's Charlie Wilson and who has at one point or another advocated bombing almost every single Middle Eastern state. Somehow, and most incredible of all, our representatives have learned absolutely nothing.

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