Editorial: William Hague has been outflanked on Syria


Related Topics

Britain's inability to persuade its fellow EU countries to have weapons supplied to non-Islamist groups in the Syrian opposition was a diplomatic failure waiting to happen. The result is that Britain is left wringing its hands on the sidelines, while Russia's efforts to guide future peace negotiations between the two sides seem increasingly assured and promising. To invert Douglas Hurd's famous formulation, we are punching below our weight: pressing for aggressive solutions which we lack both the muscle to impose ourselves, and the powers of argument to convince our allies to support.

Rewind 18 months and how different the picture looked. Then it was Russia that was in a corner, attacked on all sides for continuing to back Bashar al-Assad's regime and for sabotaging UN efforts to force him either to resign or negotiate. Fresh from our relatively painless involvement in the uprising that brought down Muammar Gaddafi, London, along with Paris and Washington, used all its diplomatic influence to secure a UN resolution that would hasten the Syrian dictator's fall. But Russia (along with China) blocked all those initiatives.

With hindsight there are several reasons why the UK can be grateful for its failure to secure a UN resolution. One is that Syria is not Libya. Libya may be riven by tribal loyalties, but it is largely homogeneous in ethnic and religious terms. Solid democratic governance may take many years to put down roots there, but the sort of basic political stability that is a prerequisite for such a development does not seem completely out of the question.

Syria, by contrast, is a religious and ethnic patchwork. No one can doubt that President Assad's Alawite clique has only clung to power through the ruthless use of force. But there can be no confidence that the fall of Mr Assad would be a prelude to peace. Far more likely, it would be only the first act in a civil war that could make the massacres of the past two years look modest.

In this context, Britain's urge to arm the secular rebel groups while keeping Jihadi ones at arm's length looks naive for a once big power with long experience in the Middle East. Once the weapons are in the theatre, they will remain in play. And if they are in the hands of people we think of as the good guys today, there is no guarantee that they will remain so tomorrow.

Then there is Russia. While Britain, tentatively supported by France, continues to try to hasten a military resolution to the conflict, Moscow has further undermined those efforts by forging ties of its own with some of the Syrian rebel groups, without sacrificing its support for Mr Assad. As a result it is not inconceivable that Moscow will emerge, sooner rather than later, as the only outside power sufficiently trusted by both sides to mediate between them.

Libya may have whetted the appetite of Britain and France for again exercising disproportionate influence in North Africa, but President Hollande has learned quickly from his Mali adventure how treacherous those sands can be. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta wanted to supply Syria's rebels with arms, but President Obama, ever more reluctant to commit the US to conflicts like these, vetoed the idea.

William Hague may well be motivated by the sort of humanitarian compulsions that were conspicuously absent from Conservative policy towards Bosnia 20 years ago. But however righteous his motives, yesterday's debacle is a timely reminder that there are severe limits both to the role of force in resolving the conflicts that emerged from the Arab Spring, and to what a small and relatively impecunious country such as Britain can do to bring about peace.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page


Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam