By Tim Montgomerie
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William Hague and David Cameron are seriously considering sending arms to help the Syrian opposition in their civil war with the Assad regime. Assad's armed forces are being financed and equipped by Russia and are getting a helping hand from Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The combination of Russia and Iran is a particularly horrible one. Moscow's fingerprints are all over the Grozny-style bombing of Syrian cities that means many of them now resemble 1945 Berlin. Tehran's contribution has been to help brutalise the Syrian regime's anti-insurgency operations. Many prisoners of war aren't detained but are mutilated before being killed.
It is no wonder that, in Mr Hague's words, Syria is producing the world's "biggest human catastrophe of recent years". At least 70,000 people have already died. Four million people are in acute need. More than one million refugees have fled Syria and that flow is accelerating rather than declining. Last week, as a guest of the Save the Children charity, I visited the Zaatari refugee camp on Jordan's border with Syria.
Up until recently the camp was empty, forbidding desert. Now it's home for more than 100,000 desperate people, half of them children. Some have fled their country because their homes and schools were burnt down or loved ones were injured, tortured or killed. Others have left because there is no longer fresh water in their home towns or food they can afford. The camp is a world apart from the old life most of them led. These aren't destitute Africans who have been evicted from one subsistence lifestyle and moved to a refugee camp. Until a few months ago the people who now live in almost empty tents and queue for two or three hours every day for a daily bread ration led lives that most of us would recognise. They had gardens, TV, their children went to school, they ate different kinds of meals most nights, they went to the cinema, read books. Now they live with almost no possessions and even less hope. They haven't left Syria expecting to return within a few months. Most cannot see an early end to their country's civil war.
This refugee camp is different from others in history, however, because it is wired. Half of the tents have laptops and many of the refugees have mobile phones. When they are not using those devices to listen to revolutionary songs they are surfing the internet. They are reading about big pledges of aid and wondering why so little of it seems to have arrived. They read that Syrian forces continue to bomb rebel-controlled areas and wonder why their compatriots aren't protected by the same kind of No Fly Zone that was introduced to protect the people of Benghazi and Libya.
There aren't going to be any easy solutions to the civil war. Russia and Iran are determined to keep the Assad regime in place. The Syrian opposition is determined to oust that regime. America is reluctant to get involved. The US is the largest donor of aid but Obama is a domestic president and does not want to be drawn into any new Middle Eastern conflicts. In the absence of a solution to the underlying conflict the world needs to deliver much more life-saving aid.
Justin Forsyth, Chief Executive of Save the Children, has noted that only 20% of the $1.5 billion of aid promised has actually materialised. "To make matters worse," he says, "that money was pledged on the level of need until June, but we have already surpassed that." He added: "Since the Kuwait donors' conference more than 200,000 children have fled Syria and thousands of people have been killed. Donors who have not yet paid their promised share should react immediately to the urgency of this situation. We are answerable to those children and we have a duty to do all we can to help them".
I am glad that the British and French governments are considering whether to arm the Syrian opposition. It is a course with great risks because arms might fall into the hands of the radical elements that are now flowing into Syria. At the very least, however – and in the absence of enforcing a No Fly Zone – we should provide the rebel forces with anti-aircraft and other defensive weaponary.
In terms of the humanitarian challenge Britain has given disproportionately. As I write in today's Times (£) the real ask must be of the rich regional oil powers. Their backyard is on the edge of being destabilised, especially Jordan and Lebanon. Poorer Jordanians are already calling for the border to be closed, complaining that extremists are entering their country and that Syrians are taking their jobs and imposing an intolerable burden on their already stretched economy. In the absence of a solution to the standoff between the Assad regime and its opponents, Syria's humanitarian and refugee crisis will only get worse. More menacingly it has the potential to spread dangerous instabilities throughout the whole region. A very great deal is at stake.