Editorial: Ceasefire not escalation should be the EU’s aim in Syria

Hague's arguments for ending the EU arms embargo on the Syrian rebels show a serious misunderstanding of the situation on the ground

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The ending of the EU arms embargo on the Syrian rebels is a foolish and ill-considered move likely to lead to more dead bodies rather than fewer. The arguments put forward by William Hague and his French counterpart show a serious misunderstanding of the situation on the ground and the likely impact of more weapons being made available to the insurgents.

Mr Hague believes that sending more arms to the rebels will tip the military balance so far against President Bashar al-Assad that he will negotiate the end of his own regime. But Mr Assad’s forces still hold 15 out of 16 Syrian provincial capitals after two years of war. Sending more weapons is not going to break the present military stalemate; it has, however, already prompted Russia to say it will ship new anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. All that the muddled EU action will do is to give the rebels the impression that they might still ride to victory on the back of massive Western military intervention, as did the opposition in Afghanistan and Iraq. So long as this hope is there, the insurgents have no incentive to negotiate.

The picture of the Syrian civil war as given by British and French leaders is either over-simple, imaginary or out of date. The conflict may have begun as a popular uprising against a tyrannical government, but it has turned into a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Alawites, a Shia sect, inside Syria. In the wider Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, which are among the least democratic or secular governments in the world, see the overthrow of the regime in Damascus as one step in a wider war against the Shia paramilitary movement Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia governments in Baghdad and Tehran. Does the EU really want to back one side in this turmoil which has already sucked in so many players?

Weapons will supposedly go to “moderate” rebels, but how to identify them? Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition umbrella group, recently stood down, saying that his organisation was controlled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and did not answer to the Syrian people.

The aim should be to recognise the present stalemate, not try to break it. The war has gone on too long, the military balance is too even and the hatred of pro- and anti-regime forces too deep for either side to be decisively defeated or to share power in government. The current aim should therefore be to arrange at least a ceasefire to reduce the level of violence. The only power-sharing that is likely to work in the middle of a civil war is geographical, with each side keeping the territory it holds at the moment.

A ceasefire should be deliverable, given that government and insurgents both rely on long-term allies who are frightened of the conflict spinning out of control. Both the US and Russia can see the war spreading to Iraq and Lebanon, which have similar sectarian divisions as Syria and have recently experienced ferocious civil wars. Iran does not want to be continually drained by keeping the government in Damascus in power if there is an acceptable compromise. Turkey faces serious damage politically and economically if the war begins to spread across its long frontier with Syria.

A ceasefire is important because people will live who would otherwise die. It would also get both sides used to the idea that neither is going to win a decisive victory and they must reach some form of accommodation. Here the American and Russian approach is much more grown-up and realistic than the dangerous over-simplifications coming out of London and Paris.

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