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Why the UK Should Avoid Arming the Syrian Rebels

18/06/2013 14:51 BST | Updated 18/08/2013 10:12 BST
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As the Syrian conflict rages on the European Union took the significant decision in recent weeks to lift the arms embargo on the beleaguered country, paving the way for the Governments of major European countries to send weapons to rebel forces (a.k.a. the Free Syrian Army) fighting against the Assad regime.

Early reports of chemical weapon use are being confirmed by the UN, and although neither side has been proven the culprit, it is a disconcerting development either way. If the FSA were to blame it would mean that chemical weapons are lost and unaccounted for in a very unstable country. If the Assad regime were responsible then they would have taken a running leap across both President Obama's red line and David Cameron's Rubicon. The latter would prove a significant push towards arming the rebels as to take no action would be to admit that Assad has called the international bluff, and he can seemingly do what he wants to his country and citizens without fear of foreign intervention.

Whilst wanting to intervene for the greater good is a noble compulsion, what has to be debated is whether arming the rebels will actually help the situation. I would say no, and here's why:

1. There are no guarantees that the weapons sent would stay solely with the secular rebels. This was the key proviso of many making the case for arming the rebels. But any weapons that are sent to Syria could well have longer lives than a lot of the rebels receiving them. There are Al-Qaeda sponsored militants fighting alongside secular rebels, against a secular dictatorship now backed up by Hezbollah; a situation exponentially more complex than when Western Governments intervened in Libya, for example. Promises on the rebels' behalf that they will not let the weapons fall into Jihadist hands mean little in the frantic warzone that Syria has become. Just ask John McCain (prominent 'arm the rebels' cheerleader), photographed on his trip to meet the 'good' rebels alongside what turned out to be notorious kidnapper. As Jon Stewart put it, "not everyone is going to be wearing their 'Hello, I'm a Terrorist' name badge".

2. It is likely to increase the risk of terrorism against the UK and its citizens. Despite the fanciful claims to the contrary by Boris Johnson amongst others, military intervention in the Middle East is one of the major causes of terror attacks against Western countries. This view is backed by expert opinion such as that of former Mi5 head Eliza Manningham-Buller and others wholly more qualified to comment than Johnson. Many have argued, quite rightly, that fear of reprisals should not deter us from doing what is morally right or necessary. As a permanent member of the UN Security council (as are France and the US) the UK Government has an obligation to not stand idly by during a huge humanitarian crisis. However it also has obligations to its own citizens, and the impact domestically must be considered in every major foreign policy decision. Especially so when you are potentially arming one set of Jihadists (Al-Qaeda), and p***ing off another (Hezbollah and its allies).

3. Arming the rebels will render hopeless any further attempts to persuade Russia to cease deliverance of hi-tech military equipment to the Assad regime. Previously these requests have fallen on deaf ears; however Russia is currently stalling on its contract to supply sophisticated S-300 defensive missiles. There is no moral leg to stand on if asking Russia to suspend indefinitely this, or any other, armament contract if we are doing the same just for a different side; by doing so a de-escalation intervention that could save many lives has been written off.

4. And finally the most important reason; the theory behind arming the Syrian rebels is fundamentally flawed, the core strategy based on dubious presumption. The logic goes that the rebels' enhanced warfare capabilities will lead either to rebel victory, or more likely to an equalisation in military power that forces the Assad regime to the negotiating table. But consider what would be sent (rifles, grenades and perhaps rocket launchers) compared to what the Assad regime already have (fighter jets, attack helicopters and tanks). Assad has already turned these war-machines on his own people, but has by no means been using them to their full devastating potential. Hezbollah's recent foray into the conflict appears to have overwhelmed the rebels (the Golan crossing and the strategic town of Qusair have both since been brought back under the regime's control), highlighting the relative inferiority of the FSA. Is it really plausible that we could arm the rebels to an extent that the Assad regime decides the price of victory would be too much, and enters peace talks? Nothing about the Syrian armed forces' military capabilities or President Assad's mindset suggest this would be so.

There is no doubt that the Syrian conflict has caused a substantial and ongoing humanitarian crisis that on-looking countries seem unable to alleviate. However any decision to arm the Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime is one that is unlikely to work, closes the door on other options, and could well bring harmful consequences to those that implement it. I do not profess to know the answer to the situation in Syria; I simply argue that moving to arm the rebels is surely not it.