First, a word or two about democracy in the European Union. On May 27th, a meeting of EU foreign ministers decided to lift the EU embargo on supplying arms to the opponents of Bashir al-Assad’s regime. Of the 27 states represented, 25 were strongly opposed to lifting the embargo. Only the U.K. and France were in favour. Nevertheless, according to Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague, “EU nations agreed to bring the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition to an end. This was the outcome that the United Kingdom wanted.” Given that only two of the countries represented were in favour, in what sense did the EU “agree to lift the embargo”? It seems that, despite their opposition to the Franco-British demand, representative of the other states capitulated to pressure in order to maintain the pretense of unity amongst EU members. Such is the sorry state of democracy in the crisis-stricken European Union. So that there is no room for misunderstanding it is worth spelling it out: despite the fact that British public opinion is against pouring more arms into Syria, despite the fact that 25 of the 27 EU member states are opposed to it, the decision has been taken to lift the embargo
It is hardly surprising that immediately following this decision the Russians announced their intention to supply the Assad regime with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. This entirely predictable escalation of arms deliveries to both sides in the Syrian civil war guarantees that the conflict will become ever more intractable with the increased likelihood of sectarian conflict engulfing wider areas of the Middle East. The briefest reference to some of the elements involved in this explosive concoction is sufficient to expose the dangers involved.
- Iraq Far from having recovered from the 2003 invasion, the country is riven by Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence which has recently seen the civilian death-toll from bombings rising once again to levels comparable with the immediate post-invasion years.
- Lebanon Hezbollah has now entered the Syrian conflict on al-Assad’s side. This has nothing to do with support for revolution or democracy. It is a sectarian engagement in support of the Alawite minority against the largely Sunni opposition. By throwing his militia into action outside Lebanon, Nasrallah has exposed the hollowness of his pro-Palestinian commitment. Hezbollah has ordered Hamas, who support the Syrian opposition, out of Lebanon. The consequences for the internal stability of Lebanon are likely to be dire, with the real risk of a return to the sectarian religious conflict that engulfed the country for much of the 1970 and 1980s.
- Jordan 1.5 million refugees from the conflict are crowded into camps on Syria’s borders. In Jordan, where it is estimated that they now make up 10% of the population, they have become engulfed in a human tragedy on an enormous scale. Women have been forced through destitution into prostitution and sold to abusive men from the Gulf States. Human Rights Watch considers that the numbers of refugees fleeing across Syria’s borders could reach 3.5 million by the end of the year if the exodus continues at the present rate.
- Israel The Israelis have been very critical of the Franco-British intention to send arms to Syria. They understand that such arms are likely to fall into the hands of al Qaida- inspired jihadists, an outcome which they would see as increasing the threat to their security. They could not have been surprised at the Russian response to the lifting of the EU embargo and they have made clear that they intend to launch strikes to destroy the S-300 missile sites should they materialize. This is no idle threat and the seriousness of its consequences, particularly in the likely event that such sites will be installed under Russian supervision, cannot have escaped the Israelis.
Given the stakes in this gamble it is hardly believable that the British and French governments could have opted to do something so fatuous and yet so dangerous. Their claim that the weapons will only be sent to the “moderate” (pro-western) sections of the opposition deserves to be treated only with derision. Anyone with the slightest understanding of the situation on the ground in Syria knows that such a guarantee is worthless. The Russians, Assad, and the Israelis all know this. The increasing dominance of Jabhat al-Nusra, which has sworn its allegiance to al-Qaida, is well-known. The notion that a quarantine can be placed around the jihadist terrorists and arms channeled to “moderate”, secular democrats, is totally implausible and those peddling such nonsense must know it. It is just as nonsensical as the illusion still cherished by some sections of the “revolutionary left” that the heterogeneous conglomeration of domestic and foreign sectarians dominating the armed opposition to Assad amounts to “the Syrian Revolution.” This is a civil war in which neither side can claim any moral high-ground. More than 80.000 people have been killed. Atrocities have been committed on all sides. The initial uprising, which had the potential to develop into a genuine secular, democratic revolution, has been hi-jacked by theocratic fanatics and jihadists.
Those who are already arming, and those who want to increase arms supplies to the opposition in Syria, have opted to arm al-Qaida. This applies to their suppliers in the Gulf States, to the CIA, to Turkey – and now to the British and French governments who have pressurized the E.U. to lift the arms embargo. It also applies to the Obama administration that has supported the decision. The Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah reactions were predictable. Syria has become a battle-ground for foreign interventionists with the major players determined to deny the advantage to their opponents. The likelihood of a negotiated settlement through planned peace talks in Geneva, to which both the U.S. and Russia had pledged support, now seems remote. The opposition Syrian National Coalition refuses to participate in talks with Assad’s government. The latest escalation in arms supplies means that the talks planned to start in June will now be postponed until later in the year, with no certainty that they will take place at all.
It is ironic that little more than a week after a British soldier was stabbed to death by two home-grown, al-Qaida-inspired jihadists in south London, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, counts as a triumph for his foreign policy the EU’s decision to lift an embargo that will deliver British and French arms into the hands of al-Qaida- inspired jihadists in Syria. One might have thought that those subscribing to the old aphorism “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” might have learned a thing or two from the mishaps of their past experience. But one should never under-estimate the determination of professional politicians to ignore the lessons of history. Throughout the 1980s, the United States and its allies steadfastly supported, armed and trained the Afghan Mujahedin (in whose ranks Bin Laden fought) in their war against the Soviet Union. The Soviets admitted failure and withdrew after ten years. The secular Najibullah regime they left behind lasted a few years before succumbing to the now feuding Islamists. Najibullah himself was butchered by the western-backed jihadists and his mutilated body was displayed on the streets of Kabul as a warning to all infidels. The Mujahedin morphed into the Taliban, who, when the western infidels withdraw defeated, will retake the country and subject representatives of the Karzai regime to a revenge similar to that visited upon Najibullah more than twenty years ago.
It may be comforting for those in the west who hope to see a progressive, secular outcome to the revolutionary awakening that began to sweep through Arab countries three years ago, to believe that the “Syrian Revolution” may yet move in this direction. But such hopes in the face of hard reality can be no more than wishfulness. The present reality leaves no room for such illusions. The situation in the Middle East, in the light of the Syrian civil war, is alarming because it has the potential to explode in a regional conflagration which could suck in most of the neighbouring countries. There are, of course, many “ifs”. But the “ifs” are not so much distant possibilities as immediate probabilities: IfSyria bombards the Golan Heights; ifRussia installs S 300 anti-aircraft missiles; ifIsrael attacks the rocket emplacements; ifJabhat al-Nusra obtains sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons; ifHezbollah strengthens its position in Syria and Lebanon over its Sunni enemies. One could go on. It is clear that many elements are now in place that could lead to a widening conflict in the Middle East, the consequences of which would be incalculable. The only hope of avoiding this would seem to be through a renewed effort to reach a negotiated settlement at Geneva. For this to be even a possibility, serious concessions will need to be made. The Assad regime has recently strengthened its position. Assad’s allies in Moscow and Teheran need to persuade him that a negotiated settlement is essential and that, to achieve it he may need to step aside. If the western powers seriously wish to avoid a catastrophe in the Middle East, they must pressurize the opposition to enter into talks with the Assad regime, whether or not Assad remains in power. How such negotiations are likely to progress, should it be possible to begin them, no-one can say. But unless the attempt is made during the course of the next few months, a tipping-point will be reached from which it will not be possible to step back.