Western meddling in Syria will only fuel the Sunni insurgency

World View: British efforts to arm 'moderate' rebels reveal a lack of understanding of this complex civil war

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We are going to do it again. The British effort to get the EU arms embargo amended so it can supply weapons to the Syrian insurgents is justified by self-serving falsifications about the situation on the ground similar to those used to garner support for the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago. In Iraq and Syria, propaganda masked the fact that Britain was intervening in a country where civil war was brewing or had already broken out.

A spurt of suspiciously timed claims by unnamed diplomats last week suggested that British and French arms should be sent to the rebels because Russia and Iran had increased their supply of weapons to the Syrian government. This had disturbed the military balance of power between insurgent and government forces to the advantage of the former. A British official denounced the "perversity" of this, saying that these new arms made it impossible for opposition forces to protect civilians.

It would be nice to believe that the only fault line in Syria is between a tyrannical government and a popular uprising enjoying overwhelming support. But, if that was ever true, it certainly is not so today. Syria is a divided society engaged in a ferocious civil conflict. It was not a partisan of the government but a rebel fighting in Aleppo named Abu Ahmed, the commander of a unit of the al-Tawheed Brigade belonging to the supposedly secular and moderate Free Syrian Army, who told a reporter from Reuters earlier this year that he put support for President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo at 70 per cent. "They don't have a revolutionary mindset," he said. "There has been a lot of corruption in the Free Syrian Army's battalions – stealing, oppressing the people – because there are parasites that have entered the Free Syrian Army."

When I was in Damascus three months ago, a friend explained that the popularity or lack of it of both sides was about the same. He said: "About 15 per cent of people in Damascus support the rebels; 15 per cent are for the government, and the other 70 per cent want to get the whole thing over with." But giving more arms to the rebels is not the way to end the war and will only give them hope that, if they refuse any negotiations with the government, the Western powers backed by their Arab allies will finally be driven to decisive military intervention on their behalf.

The weapons will apparently go to "moderate" factions of the insurgency. But a striking development in the fighting over the past six months has been the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra, labelled by the US as a "terrorist group" and built around a core of experienced fighters from al-Qa'ida in Iraq, as the most effective rebel military force. Its fighters, along with other jihadi groups, are ever more prominent in the struggle for northern and eastern Syria, while the FSA has been pushed to one side. The FSA drew much of its support from the poor Sunni of the country towns and villages. The middle class of Aleppo, which might have preferred Assad to stay in power, opts for Jabhat al-Nusra over Western-backed groups because it keeps some sort of order and does not steal. "The Free Syrian Army are thieves," shout protesters in rebel-held parts of Aleppo. "We want the Islamic Army."

Another aspect to the rise of al-Nusra ought to give pause to those in Britain and France planning to arm the opposition with the aim of ending the war more swiftly. Their strangely contradictory argument is that it is important to end the war if Syria is not to be wholly destroyed, and the way to do this is give enough arms to the insurgents that they can win a decisive victory. Not only is there no sign of this happening soon, but a long war is very much in the interests of al-Nusra. Its literature makes the point that the longer the conflict goes on, the stronger the jihadis will become because they are better soldiers than their more moderate, but less effective, allies. Nevertheless, they need time to establish themselves in the countryside in areas where they are weak.

Arab diplomats say that, after two years of fighting, the rebels "have still not been able to take a single city and there have been no major defections to them by whole units from the government forces". This was very different from Libya in 2011 when the insurgents held Benghazi and eastern Libya from the beginning and there were defections from the regime.

This may be changing. On 4 March, the city of ar-Raqqah on the Euphrates in eastern Syria fell to the rebels, the first provincial capital to be captured by them. But it is very significant that ar-Raqqah fell entirely to jihadi forces led by al-Nusra using captured armoured vehicles. The Free Syrian Army appears to have played little role in the taking of the city.

The fall of ar-Raqqah has another consequence. As eastern Syria falls increasingly under the control of the jihadi Sunni fighters, the border with Iraq is becoming a fiction. Al-Qa'ida in Iraq can move backwards and forwards across the frontier, where the population is solidly Sunni on both sides, with no impediment. This is bad news for the stability of Iraq as well as Syria. Tribes such as the Shammar live in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, and across the border in Syria. Iraqi government forces have decreasing authority in overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province since protests against the government of Nouri al-Maliki began in December. In a further twist, Kurdish peshmerga have prevented Iraqi army units reinforcing the Iraqi-Syrian border from crossing west of Sinjar as part of the struggle for the territories disputed between Kurds and Arabs.

The dimensions of the crisis have still not sunk in. Soon, if it has not happened already, the area of Sunni Arab insurgency will stretch from Fallujah up the Euphrates to Aleppo and on to the shores of the Mediterranean. It is wishful thinking to imagine that, even if weapons in large quantities are channelled to "moderate" Syrian rebels, this is going to make much difference at this stage. Assad's government is not going to collapse like a house of cards as Western leaders were hopefully prophesying up to a few months ago. Only negotiations can end this war, and fresh supplies of arms will put off the day they start because the weapons send a message to the rebels that one day they may get full-scale Western military intervention.

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