By Paul Goodman
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Two of the behind-the-scenes players in the Syrian drama are Britain and Russia – Britain, because it is one of most intervention-leaning western countries, and Russia, because it is the Assad regime's main diplomatic backer (Iran excepted). The possible emergence of a hardline Sunni Islamist government, were the regime to fall, is an important part of their conversation. Russia argues that this would be a disastrous outcome for the region, that other evils could govern Syria that are even worse than Assad, and that backing the Syrian resistance is therefore unwise.
Britain agrees the appearance of such a government would be alarming and that, were Al Qaeda to have institutional influence in Syria, this would obviously be even more so. But it disagrees strongly with Russia about how to deal with Assad. The longer he clings on in government, the Foreign Office argues, the more time Al Qaeda and other extremist elements will have to strengthen their position. In a nutshell, its case is that all Russia is achieving by helping Assad to cling to power is making the outcome that it fears more likely to happen.
Samantha Cameron's visit to the Lebanese border, where she visited refugees from Syria, can be analysed in many ways. Certainly, she has views of her own on emergency relief and international aid, which are likely to influence those of her husband. And, to be sure, the publicity the visit won is a reminder of the reach of Save the Children, of which she is an ambassador: in the video we posted on this site yesterday evening, she is wearing a Save the Children T-shirt. The trip is also bound to be seen as part of a move to prop up her husband's political position.
But to put the views of the Prime Minister's wife under the magnifying glass would be to miss a telling part of the picture. The Government (which is to say, in practice, the Foreign Office) will have approved the visit. Part of its purpose will have been to give the Russians a nudge – to remind them that Britain has a view about the terrible human cost of the war, and about what should happen next. The Government is pushing for an arms embargo on the Assad regime. France shares the same view. There is some support for this position in America.
It would be a mistake, therefore, to focus exclusively on Mrs Cameron's private views about the tragedy unfolding in Syria, and not also to glance at the views of the Government that approved her visit – her husband, after all, has compared Europe's treatment of Syria to its reaction to Bosnia during the 1990s. William Hague's approach is reportedly more cautious than the Prime Minister's, and I suspect that his wariness about intervention is justified. The Syrian Opposition isn't a united force. And it doesn't control the forces fighting "on the ground".
Moaz al-Khatib, a former Imam of Damascus's Umayyad mosque, resigned over the weekend as leader of that opposition coalition. His replacement, Ghassan Hitto is "widely seen as the candidate
of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood". I agree with Tim Montgomerie about the indispensability of aid – food, water, medical supplies: he also pointed out that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have failed to stump up. But we shouldn't be drawn into arming an opposition about which we know very little.