By Paul Goodman
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The Government is committed to giving battlefield assitance to parts of the Syrian opposition, as William Hague confirmed at yesterday's meeting of the G8. There is a plausible case for the policy. The Assad regime is a criminal kleptocracy, which appears to have used chemical weapons against its own people. Furthermore, it is a catspaw of Iran, whose nuclear push threatens a regional arms race – and whose own Government is not, to put it mildly, an ally of this country. The vile conduct of the regime has driven a refugee crisis that threatens the region's stability. Yesterday's G8 statement counted the number of refugees outside Syria as a million. That's roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Birmingham.
More narrowly, it is hard to see how Assad and his cronies can hang on indefinitely. All the more reason, therefore – it can be argued – to back the winning side. The Syrian Opposition has already been granted representation by the Arab League, which represents the Sunni majority both in the region and the wider middle east. Hague will be telling Russia that the longer it continues to help prop up Assad, the more likely it is that Al Qaeda and other fanatical Islamist groups win the upper hand within the coalition of forces opposed to him. The Government's view is shared by France and, to some degree, America, so it's scarcely as though the Foreign Secretary doesn't have allies in his diplomatic push.
The G8 had agreed humanitarian assistance to the four million Syrians that need emergency aid, and this is right: Samantha Cameron's recent visit to Lebanon helped to highlight their plight. But before it helps to persuade voters that Britain should be drawn deeper into Syria's civil war – which some believe was part of its intention – Conservative backbenchers and others need to think very carefully indeed. Iran is an international terror threat to Jewish targets. But to date the main terror threat to British citizens in recent years, whatever their ethnicity or religion, has been Sunni and not Shi'ite terror: 7/7 was executed by Wahabi or Salafist fanatics, not by agents of Iran.
Is there a risk that arming the Syrian opposition could boost the influence of this pernicious distortion of the traditional, classical Islam – just as arming Afghan jihadis in the 1970s and 1980s did, with unexpected consequences later? The Foreign Secretary admits so himself. "Syria is now the number one
destination for jihadists worldwide," he said yesterday.
"In our talks with the opposition we stressed how important it is that
assistance cannot be diverted to extremists or end up in the wrong hands and
we will remain very firm in that." A crunch question therefore is: what guarantee does Hague have that this won't happen? It's very hard to believe that the plan answer isn't: none.
We have a way of peering at conflicts abroad through the lenses with which we want to see them. To Alan Mendoza of the Henry Jackson Society, writing on this site earlier this week, a parallel can be drawn between Syria and Bosnia – a Muslim-majority country which the west passed by on the other wide. To Robin Harris, one of Margaret Thatcher's closest allies and the man who wrote much of the Downing Street Years, the significance of the Syrian bloodbath is its wider place in the extirpation of Christians in the middle east (the subject of a recent essay by him in Standpoint). It's worth noting that Canada's Government – led by Stephen Harper, the most successful Conservative of this age – is similarly concerned about religious freedom.
One of the paradoxical consequences of Assad's sectarian settlement was a degree of religious freedom in Syria. My sense when I went there was of Alawites, Shi'ites, Christians – of all sorts of shapes and sizes – huddling together, with the better-off Sunnis, against the threat, as they saw it, of the Muslim Brotherhood (which is certainly a big presence in the Syria opposition). There is certainly more that the Foreign Office could do to promote and champion religious freedom. But the key factor here is our national interest, and it isn't easy to see what action should follow from it in the case of Syria. Perhaps the best take of all would be Kissinger's on the Iran-Iraq war: "Pity they both can't lose".
If a historical analogy applies at all, might not the best one be that of the Spanish Civil War – one in which propaganda on both sides (especially, in Britain, for the Republicans) was deployed to conceal cynical politics and barbarous atrocities? Above all, those Tory backbenchers should first take a long, hard look at Syria's appalling realities, then send another in the direction of our austerity-challenged armed forces, and ask themselves what the dangers are, if we get further drawn in to Syria, of being drawn in still further. We are in a week in which the age of Thatcher and Reagan is being looked to as a model. Both were extremely wary of being drawn into conflicts on terms that they could not control. As so often, they are an example to follow.