THE BLOG

Britain's Role in the Syrian Conflict - Perfidious Albion Redux

29/05/2013 16:55 BST | Updated 28/07/2013 10:12 BST

The lifting of the EU arms embargo to Syria at the behest of the British and French governments marks a new low in the blood soaked histories of both nations when it comes to their role in the region, one that stretches all the way back to the Sykes Picot Agreement of 1916, when the region was carved up by both European powers as the inevitable collapse of the Ottoman Empire approached towards the end of the First World War.

The immediate response of the Russian government, which has supported the Assad regime since the civil war began three years ago, has been in the form of confirmation that it is intends to supply the Assad regime with advanced S-300 Russian anti aircraft missiles to defend itself against any attempted foreign military intervention.

Add to this the recent acknowledgment by the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah that its fighters are involved in operations alongside Syrian armed forces near the Lebanese border, and it is now inarguable that the stakes involved in the conflict are huge - not just for the future of the region but when it comes to the wider geopolitical context in which the conflict is taking place.

For what we are seeing unfold across the Arab world are two concentric struggles at the same time. The wider of the two is the geopolitical struggle for continued domination of the region and its abundant natural resources by the US and the West against Russian and Chinese resistance, supported by Iran and the Assad regime in Syria. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has described Iran, Syria and Hezbollah as constituting an 'axis of resistance' to the West and its allies in this regard - and in this he is right.

The other struggle taking place is a local Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict taking place primarily in Syria at present, but also to a lesser extent in Iraq, where a recent spate of car bombings has killed scores of civilians. There has also been sporadic sectarian violence and bombings in Lebanon over recent months, making Hezbollah's decision to deepen its involvement even more understandable.

Specifically when it comes to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have been actively supporting Sunni fundamentalist organisations such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaida affiliate and currently main opposition current involved in the conflict. It has taken over this mantle from the more moderate Free Syrian Army, with reports of hundreds of FSA fighters defecting to al-Nusra, citing the fact they are much better funded and armed. While London and Paris might believe that if they can start arming the FSA it will forestall the dominance of al-Nusra among the opposition forces, the idea that any new weapons sent into the country will not fall into the hands of Sunni extremists is fanciful at best. In fact to all intents and purposes both Britain and France are now supporting medieval savages whose stock in trade is decapitation of prisoners and the violation and mutilation of the dead - referencing here the recent film of an opposition fighter cutting out the heart and lungs of a dead Syria soldier and eating them.

As for Israel, its interests currently coincide with those of the aforementioned states in that it is determined to do whatever it takes to weaken Tehran, which threatens the Jewish state's regional hegemony. Israel has made it clear that it reserves the right to carry out air strikes against Iran's ongoing nuclear programme; this despite Iranian denials that it is engaged in anything other than the development of nuclear energy for civilian use.

The timing of the lifting of the EU arms embargo, in advance of a peace conference in Geneva supported by the Russians and Syrian government, is also significant. It is evidence of the lack of military success on the ground by opposition forces, which in recent weeks have been losing ground to the Syrian National Army.

Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, could hardly contain his glee when he returned from Brussels having succeeded in winning support for the Anglo-French measure at the meeting of EU foreign ministers. The fact the vote was only won by 27 to 25 produced little if zero pause for reflection over the magnitude of what the lifting of the arms embargo portends for a conflict in which an estimated 80,000 people have so far been killed, with a further 1.3 million made refugees according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile in Lebanon Hassan Nasrallah has vowed that Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian conflict will continue, claiming that if Assad falls the likelihood of Sunni extremism spreading across the border into Lebanon is guaranteed.

Given the stakes involved - the descent into Sunni extremism of an Arab Spring that began in late 2010 as a spontaneous uprising of the masses across the Arab world against decades of despair and immiseration under a collection of mostly western supported dictatorships - who could argue with him?

William Hague and the British government won't lose any sleep over something as trivial as a brutal sectarian conflict, however. On the contrary, the words Perfidious Albion have never been more appropriate or accurate when summing up British foreign policy.