UK’s helping hand on Syria may only fan the flames

You and whose army: the West is concerned that any military aid goes to the right rebel factions. FreedomHouse2 via Creative Commons

This week we learnt Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon are no longer under cover in Syria, they are actively fighting on the side of President Bashar al-Assad. They are perhaps emboldened by Israel’s attacks on alleged Hezbollah supply routes inside Syria.

In any case, Hezbollah and the Israelis are among an array of external actors backing different factions in the Syrian civil war and the prospect of outright military victory eludes them all.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently described his opponents as “different groups and bands”, each with their own local leader and thence incapable of presenting a united front to negotiate with.

His warning does not augur well for the prospects of the anticipated Geneva conference on Syria that the US and Russia say they are now jointly committed to convening.

Since the early days of the Syrian uprising, the US, Britain and France have been pressing the leaders of the Syrian opposition, loosely linked under the umbrella of the Syrian National Coalition, to present a coherent platform and united front with those in the field.

Yet the fighters making the biggest gains on the ground, notably the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front, are seemingly a law unto themselves and are certainly not the ones the Western powers would like to triumph.

Arms for the ‘good guys’

Alarmed by the prospects of this and other “extremist” groups overtaking more “moderate” opponents of Assad in the Syrian civil war, the British government has been calling for the EU arms embargo on Syria to be lifted and more assistance channelled to “the good guys”, as a British Foreign Office spokesman recently put it.

Both the prime minister, David Cameron, and most recently foreign minister, William Hague, have linked increased support for moderate Syrian opposition forces to the quest for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. The case for doing so rests on the claim that without inducements, including access to arms, the “moderates” will not be persuaded to come to the conference.

Lift arms embargo: foreign minister William Hague. Lefteris Pitarakis/PA Wire

As it is, the rebels refuse to countenance the continuation of Assad in power, while he has repeated his pledge to stay on through the next round of presidential elections in 2014.

Hezbollah is in the mix because this Shia movement has long relied on Damascus to serve as its conduit for arms supplies from Iran and bolster its position in Lebanon. Now that Assad and his Alawi minority are in trouble on their home front, Hezbollah is acting to help them hold positions in what is becoming an increasingly sectarian battlefield.

The leader of splinter group the Omar al-Farouq Brigade, Abu Sakkar, exemplifies the slide toward extreme violence. He achieved notoriety last week with the circulation of a video apparently showing him taking a bite out of the heart of a dead Syrian soldier.

But who are the good guys?

The proliferation of different factions suggests there can be no clean end to the Assad regime. That would not only upset the Russians, who have thus far stood by Assad and against Western calls for him to go, but would also scupper Washington and London’s hopes of replacing Assad with a government less prone to brutal dictatorship and more amenable to Western influence.

This spectre, or worse still, an implosion into violent chaos that destabilises the wider region, was what apparently persuaded Washington and Moscow to work together for a political solution.

Staying power: Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Press Association Images

A coming together of all the main contending parties in a meeting which some commentators have likened to the Dayton Conference that paved the way for an end the Bosnian War in 1995, is surely the best recipe for resolving the Syrian crisis.

However, it is still early days yet in the course of the Syrian conflict. Even if Moscow and Washington have given up on the prospects of their respective clients in Syria decisively winning the day, others, notably the Lebanese Hezbollah forces and their patrons in Tehran, are not yet ready to throw in the towel. Nor will it be easy to convince the more extremist forces like the al-Nusra Front, already in receipt of weapons presumed to come from supporters in the Arab Gulf states, to put down their arms.

Equally, as military advisers in the US and Europe have consistently warned, armed intervention by NATO, as was deployed in the case of Libya in 2012, could not be mounted without risk of casualties – whether among civilians on the ground or on the intervening side. Given the way the battle-lines in Syria have been drawn, dissecting neighbourhoods and involving heavy armour and aerial bombardment, there is no easy way to insert a peace-keeping force or impose a no-fly zone without physically entering the fray and going to war with the regime and others.

Having weighed the options, and desirous of “doing something” rather than nothing, the British and French governments have accompanied their calls for lifting the EU arms embargo on Syria with increased provision of “non-lethal” supplies to those elements of the opposition they call “the moderates”.

For their part, the Americans seem less inclined to facilitate arms supplies to any elements ahead of convening a conference. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has hinted that this could be a recourse were Assad not to co-operate with the new US-Russian initiative. Yet this implied threat to Assad seems hollow since it would risk inviting others, not least Hezbollah and Iran – to try to do the same for their fighters on the ground.

So whatever the timing, the idea of facilitating the flow of more arms into Syria promises no quick fix. In the British case it has the appearance of a quest to carve out a role for London in the current diplomatic machinations and thence in shaping the future of Syria. In fact, the situation is now so perilous that unilateral preferences will have to be put aside in favour of negotiating with “the bad guys” as well as the good ones in the name of saving Syria and its neighbours.