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Editorial: Arms for the rebels is no solution to Syria’s crisis

If Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything it is that foreign intervention is never simple – and Syria would surely be the most unpredictable of all

It is now two blood-soaked years since the first demonstrations against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad lit the fuse of civil war. The rebels may have made inching progress, but the murderous regime is not backing down. An estimated 70,000 lives have been lost so far, some two million people have been displaced within the country, and another million are in refugee camps beyond its borders. Yet the struggle is locked in military stalemate, no end to the misery is in sight, and the baleful geopolitical ripple-effect is only gathering force.

The outlook is bleak. Although the opposition is more coherent than it was – the Western-backed Syrian National Council was due in Istanbul to elect a provisional prime minister this week – near-anarchy on the ground is proving a magnet for mercenaries, extremists and would-be terrorists from across the world. Indeed, intelligence sources have told The Independent that Syria is now the destination of choice for British jihadis.

Nor is the fillip to international terrorism the only danger. Syria’s confused conflict is increasingly involving its neighbours, too, what with Israeli air strikes near Damascus in January (allegedly to take out heavy weapons on their way to Hamas) and UN peacekeepers kidnapped by rebels in the Golan Heights this week.

More alarming still, Syria’s war is stirring up centuries-old strife between Sunni and Shia Islam, raising the very real risk of sectarian conflagration across the Middle East and beyond. Not only is religious violence on the rise within Syria itself – likely perpetrated by both sides, according to the UN – it is also spillling over the borders. Just this week, more than 40 Syrian Government troops sheltering on the Iraqi side of the frontier were massacred by a local Sunni militia that claimed the atrocity as a triumphant blow against Shia-affiliated Assad.

Faced with humanitarian disaster and imminent regional meltdown, calls for international action are growing ever louder. David Cameron, for one, is increasingly convinced, stating explicitly this week that he plans to press for a relaxation of the EU embargo on providing arms to Syria’s rebels, and hinting that Britain might go it alone if dove-ish European allies refuse  to budge.

It is easy to understand the Prime Minister’s frustration. And it is tempting to believe that a quick military shove would bring the war to a swift close. If Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Libya, have taught us anything, though, it is that foreign intervention is never so simple – and Syria would surely be the most unpredictable of all.

Not only would it be impossible to ensure that our weapons did not fall into the hands of jihadi extremists. It is also far from certain that what follows Assad would be a regime we would want to have sponsored, even at one remove. Most dangerous of all, the international community would risk being dragged into a regional religious feud of extraordinary ferocity. In fact, our involvement might even precipitate such a crisis, by playing the hands of those that would claim the West is bent on Islam’s destruction.

The sensible course, therefore, is to continue to offer only non-lethal help to the rebels. Meanwhile, efforts to broker a diplomatic solution must continue, and Syria rightly topped the agenda when the Foreign Secretary met his Russian counterpart in London yesterday. But with Moscow showing no sign of bowing to international pressure, the prospects of success are limited.

It is, then, on the plight of the Syrian people that our attention should focus. Efforts to assuage the refugee crisis must be redoubled – the likes of Turkey and Jordon helped with the logistical and security implications of the tens of thousands flooding over their borders. Such a plan may not seem like much, given the appalling human suffering that Assad is wreaking. But it will, at least, do no harm.