The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. As the fighting goes on, the humanitarian situation worsens. Some 70,000 people have now been killed since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began, nearly two years ago. And nearly two million have been forced from their homes. As many as a million people have fled to neighbouring countries. Most have lost everything except their lives.
While the moral case for action by the outside world is clear, the realpolitik is delicate. It is easy to say that something must be done. The question is – what? The international community has decided on a gear change in its approach. The new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, announced plans to give aid direct to the rebels. Washington will not provide the arms that the opposition forces want, but the decision to send communications equipment, medical supplies and food will heighten tensions surrounding a brutal regime which Russia and Iran continue to support.
There are, in fact, good reasons not to send the weapons that the rebels need to defeat Assad. Not only is the Syrian opposition a fissiparous and volatile grouping which contains radical Islamist elements. The lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq also suggest that our enemy’s enemy can all too soon turn those guns on the nations who supplied them.
The Syrian rebels’ squabbling and fragmentation has not helped their diplomatic cause. It has been difficult for the international community to know with whom it should be dealing. The initial threats by the frustrated leader of the Syrian National Coalition to refuse to meet Mr Kerry at the summit meeting in Rome – in protest at the lack of international support for the Syrian rebels – compounded the sense that these are unreliable allies.
Yet Western leaders had little other option. The much-touted alternative of imposing a no-fly zone would mean knocking out Syrian radar – an act of war. Non-lethal aid to the rebels is, therefore, the right step at this time.