Robert Fisk: By taking sides within sides, Rifkind risks a repeat of Balkans mistakes in Syria

It was the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Today's superpowers are fighting in Syria, but lets be in no doubt as to their motivations


So there was Malcolm Rifkind, harrumphing away on Newsnight last week about the need to arm the brave boys of the Free Syrian Army who are fighting for freedom, democracy, secularism and all the other isms we support in the Middle East. Weapons should be sent to the FSA to match the tanks and missiles and to shoot down the aircraft of the Assad regime, which is so generously supplied by Russia. This was, alas, only a day before the Syrian “rebels” started a mini-civil war among themselves – between Rifkind’s “good” rebels of the FSA and the really horrible rebels of Jabhat al-Nusrah and of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

But my memory crept back to a shameful day more than 20 years ago – 8 December 1992, to be precise – when I stood with colleagues in the bitter winter of Bosnia, in a snow-drifted town called Vitez. We were all discussing the need for Nato and the UN to allow the Bosnians, most of whom were Muslims, to acquire arms so that they could defend themselves against the tanks, missiles and aircraft of the Serbs, who were receiving supplies from the Russian-armed Yugoslav army. Then, with the UN almost cut off in Sarajevo and facing the greatest crisis of its Balkan involvement, there arrived in this miserable town one Malcolm Rifkind, burdened in those days with the title of UK Minister of Defence.

Our Malcolm, clad in a camouflage uniform, patent leather shoes, an army belt worn inside-out and an ear-flapped hat, performed his photo-op duties atop a Warrior armoured vehicle. UN soldiers of the Cheshire Regiment listened expressionless at what he had to say.

The Syrian tragedy makes his words all the more shocking. Rifkind called the Bosnian conflict a “civil war” – despite Britain’s recognition of President Alija Izetbegovic’s government in Sarajevo – adding that to impose peace in Bosnia “would be inappropriate because I think the scale of what would be involved would be dramatic. It’s been suggested that over 100,000 soldiers might be required. Their commitment would be open-ended. It could last for very many years and there would be the certainty … of significant casualties.” He did not explain where this epic figure of 100,000 had come from, nor his evidence for an “open-ended commitment”. But off he went in his Warrior across the frozen hills of Bosnia, standing at the rear and waving at the cameramen as if he was on a publicity tour. Was there not, I wrote at the time, a tragedy in this land?

And is there not a tragedy in the land of Syria? Read again David Rieff’s devastating critique of the Bosnian war: “The West …chose to do anything but intervene. Instead, they mounted one of the largest and most heroic humanitarian relief efforts in modern history … all the while pursuing decidedly unheroic diplomatic negotiations. The purpose of these … was not to save Bosnia but, as politicians like to say, ‘to contain the crisis’.” What all the peace plans had in common was division along ethnic lines.

And today we will intervene in Syria – yet neither risking our soldiers nor mounting heroic relief efforts. We are sending millions of dollars to Syrian refugees, but have lost all interest in humanitarian corridors and certainly do not intend to defend such corridors if they ever exist. Having decided to starve the Bosnians of arms in the Balkans – while sending in supplies – Rifkind now wants to send guns into Syria while the commentariat tells us that a divided, sectarian Syria – Alawites on the coast, Sunnis in control, readers know the story – may end the war. Ergo Bosnia.

In other ways, Syria resembles the Spanish civil war, where the Royal Navy mounted a League of Nations (for which read UN) arms embargo while the Germans and Italians armed the rebel nationalists and the Russians armed the government republicans. The parallels are not exact. Franco’s nationalist rebels were not interested in democracy – is the FSA, for that matter? – and the government side lost. But the mendacity is there for all to see. The Russians backed the republicans because they wanted to fight fascism. The Germans and Italians supported the nationalists because they wanted to fight Communism. All wanted to test their new weapons. In the outside world, only the International Brigades – armed with largely useless guns – cared about Spain.

Today’s superpowers are now fighting in Syria; Russia wants to prove its international power and crush an Islamist uprising close to its borders. The West wants to counter Russia’s power in the Middle East by giving guns to the rebels while at the same time preventing the Islamists taking over Syria. A tall order!

But let’s be in no doubt why we want to arm the rebels. If the civil war in Syria is worthy of intervention, ours is defined by one major fact: we want to give more guns to the rebels because, for the moment, the Assad regime is winning. Our masters now tell us we must “balance” the forces – which is intriguing. It means we don’t really care to end the war. We just don’t want the rebels to lose it. So the war will go on. And sending more guns into Syria will maintain this bloody status quo.

For, grafted on to this phantom West-versus-Russia conflict there is the Sunni-Shia struggle, in which the Sunni – the Gulf monarchies, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt (up to a point) and much of north Africa – have aligned themselves against the Shia – the Iranians, the Alawites, Hezbollah, and a minority Shia population in Saudi Arabia. “We” are now 100 per cent on the Sunni side. It is we who want to arm the Sunni rebels – the good Sunnis, of course, not the bad Sunnis – and have therefore also taken a side in the Islamic “civil war”.

Thus our “statesmen” are now trying to explain that the bad rebels in Syria are outsiders, foreigners, jihadis from other Muslim countries; while the good FSA rebels are Syrian patriots. The problem is that – while it’s true that thousands of armed jihadis have arrived from abroad – thousands of Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, who have declared links to al Qa’ida, happen to be Syrians.

Thus the Rifkind plan – and the Hague plan, and the Cameron plan, and the Hollande plan, and I suppose the Obama plan – for sending guns to the rebels means arming one side in the rebel “civil war”, both of whom are fighting another “civil war” against the government.

Yes, we all know about the mass murders, ethnic cleansing, raping, gassing – a question mark here still, I fear – and the atrocities. In the Balkans, we acknowledged that the Bosnians committed war crimes but agreed that the Serbs committed far more. In Syria, we agree that the Assad forces commit war crimes but accept that the rebels commit far fewer – unless they are “bad” rebels, in which case they might be committing still more.

But back to Bosnia. There we couldn’t arm the Bosnians because they might then win – and thus destroy the chances of peace negotiations which would lead to a divided sectarian state (which is exactly what happened). In Syria, we should arm the rebels because they might otherwise lose – in which case there may be no negotiations and no sectarian state. The bottom line is the “balance”. And if both sides still think they can win, the war will go on. Is that what we want?

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