Syria’s stalemate could be a war without end

When the uprising began Britain should have given moderate opposition fighters arms, but did not. In that time the Islamists' power has grown enormously

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The Independent Online

The failure of the European Union to renew the arms embargo on Syria was hardly unexpected. David Cameron and William Hague indicated two months ago that Britain would demand that the terms were relaxed so that the option would be there to send weapons to the rebels. This, it was acknowledged, was unlikely to succeed because of strong opposition from some other member states, and thus the sanctions regime would cease to exist.

Britain and France, which also supported the call on the embargo, have been locked into a position and timeline from which it has become impossible to retreat without losing political credibility. The chain of unintended consequences of this may be that the Cameron Government will actually succeed in uniting all interested parties – in irritation against itself.

Since the uprising began in Syria two years ago, moderate opposition fighters – of which there were many – had begged for arms. Britain and France could and should have given them this help, but did not. In that time, the Islamists, receiving weapons and money from Gulf states, have grown enormously in power. Jabhat al-Nusra was a small, unimpressive group, big on jihadist talk, short on action, when I first met them in Aleppo last summer. Now they are the largest and most effective of the rebel khatibas, or battalions, in the process becoming described by the US as a terrorist organisation. The moderates are seen as counterweights to the terrorists, but they have dwindled in numbers.

Having failed to seize the momentum in helping its natural allies, Britain and France have now announced that they will (probably) arm the rebels. The timing is unfortunate. Despite bitter accusations and recriminations from the protagonists, there is still hope that the planned conference in Geneva next month can begin the process of ending the savage strife which has claimed about 80,000 lives so far.

It is true that the Syrian National Council, the opposition’s dysfunctional umbrella group, says it may not attend. But it has become well known for making contradictory statements and, if push comes to shove and the Americans and the Arab League tell it to turn up, it will. The SNC is also aware that there are other opposition organisations that would be only too willing to take their place. John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have been working hard at this, and although the White House says it broadly supports ending the sanctions by Brussels, there is annoyance in the State Department at yet another unwelcome problem in the run-up to Geneva.

The Russians are protesting about the end of the embargo, pointing out that David Cameron had publicly said he was heartened after his recent meeting with Vladimir Putin that both of them wanted an unfragmented Syria to achieve peace. A day after the EU meeting, deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that the Kremlin would now go ahead with the supply of the S-300 missiles to the Assad regime. The contract for the system had long been signed, but has not so far been delivered, at the request of the US, European states and Israel. This, in turn, has boosted Assad’s confidence and will make it that much harder to impose any kind of a “no-fly zone” in the future.

Israel says the S-300 falling into the hands of Hezbollah across the border in Lebanon would be a game-changer; defence minister Moshe Yaalon threatened more air strikes on Syria if the missiles arrive. At the same time, Tel Aviv does not want the rebels to be armed with weapons which could be turned against the Jewish state. Tel Aviv’s position remains ambivalent at best. Efraim Halevy, a former head of Mossad, says Assad remains “Israel’s man in Damascus”. A column in Haaretz said “Israel can stand to gain from war” and its current stalemate.

What about the rebels themselves? The news from Brussels was followed within hours by the SNC asking the EU to send “specialised weaponry”. Abu Qasem, a commander I spent time with in Idlib province, said in an excited phone call from Turkey, where he had gone to obtain ammunition, that the khatibas were expecting, above all, Manpads (shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles). Having seen cold-blooded killings meted out from the air by Assad’s warplanes, I can understand the desire to strike back. But it seems highly unlikely that Britain and France will supply such weapons. There is deep apprehension that they may end up with Islamists. The Americans are still trying to secure Manpads looted from Gaddafi’s arsenal in Libya. I saw some in Mali being used by al-Qa’ida to try to shoot down French helicopters.

The British and French are likely to supply, through a third party, small arms and ammunition. Qasem and his comrades will probably be very disappointed and then resentful towards the West as their high expectations are dashed. Other questions remain. How are AK-47s going to swing the balance against the regime, or, indeed, the heavily armed Islamists? What are the chances that al-Nusra would not get hold of them anyway? This particular reasoning has become a bit of a cliché, but is of concern, nevertheless. We have seen Islamists help themselves, from depots, to food donated from abroad: why shouldn’t they be able to do so with arms? Also, driven by necessity, some remaining moderate groups are having to work alongside jihadists; it is easy for weapons to change hands in battlefield conditions.

William Hague wants to help people suffering at the hands of a vicious regime. He does not desire the arms option as an imperialist conspiracy, as some of his more swivel-eyed critics charge. The aim is not to prolong the war, he says, but to pressure the regime to the negotiating table. But it also means Assad’s allies abroad will use this as an excuse to add more to his arsenal and the risk that the move may jeopardise the first real chance of negotiations to end the bloodshed – the Geneva conference.