If only the terrible conflict in Syria were a simple case of good versus evil, a freedom movement challenging a dictatorship, then it would be easy to know what to do. The world has watched in horror for three years as that unhappy country has torn itself apart at horrendous human cost. An estimated 93,000 people have been killed, and a million refugees have spilled across Syria’s borders.
Barack Obama set the regime a ‘red line’, warning that the US could not continue to stand by doing nothing if chemical weapons were deployed against the rebels. Last week, the White House announced that US intelligence had `high confidence’ that the nerve agent sarin and other chemical weapons on a small scale had killed 100 to 150 people. The ‘red line’ has been crossed, and America is now going to send military aid to the rebels.
Amid these horrors, David Cameron’s reluctance to stand aside is understandable, especially now the US intends to arm the rebels, and Saudi Arabia, according to the latest, is already doing so. It seems callous to do nothing in the face of so much human suffering. It is tempting to follow a line of argument going something like this ~ ‘We must do something. Arming the rebels is something. We must arm the rebels’.
It is a step that the Foreign Secretary William Hague pointedly refused to rule out when
interviewed on Sunday morning on the Today
programme, when he said that Britain needed to protect the Syrian opposition from being ‘exterminated’.
At the G8 summit in Belfast, Barack Obama and David Cameron are up against Vladimir Putin, whose government is arming one of the combatants in the Syrian conflict ~ the wrong side, in the West’s view.
If the talk about arming the rebels is their negotiating ploy, intended to persuade Putin to stop arming the Syrian dictator, that is understandable but dangerous. In diplomacy, it is seldom a good idea to make a threat unless you are prepared to carry it out. With Putin showing no sign of giving ground, both the US and British governments are in danger of putting themselves in a position where the choice is to intervene, or lose face.
If David Cameron decides to supply Syrian rebels with British arms, he will set himself the near impossible task of making sure that the weapons reach the `right’ rebels without being passed on to the `wrong’ ones ~ or else, eight years after a gang of suicide bombers killed 52 Tube and bus travellers in London ~ the British taxpayers could unwittingly be paying to supply al-Qa’ida with the means to commit murder.
David Cameron acknowledged the problem on Sunday when he said he was ‘as worried as anyone’ about the presence of extremists in the Syrian opposition, and declared that `we should be on the side of Syrians who want a democratic and peaceful future for their country’. What he did not explain is how British officials will sort the `peaceful’ rebels out from the ‘extremists’ if they start to issue weapons. And does the government’s responsibility end at making sure that the weapons start off in the right hands, or will there be a mechanism to make sure they do not get passed on?
Though the rebellion against the Assad dictatorship was set off by the Arab Spring, it is not a simple movement for freedom and democracy. Saudi Arabia is arming the rebels not because they are democrats, but because they are Sunni Muslims, fighting against a Shi’ite regime.
The consequences of a Sunni victory are not easy to calculate, not least for Syria’s long established Christian minority. Injecting yet more weaponry into this explosive situation is not the answer.