Aaron Ellis 11.03am
During a statement to the House of Commons yesterday about last week’s European Council, the Prime Minister warned that the Syrian crisis was “attracting and empowering a new cohort of Al Qaeda-linked extremists.” The only way to check their malign influence is if the West arms those “parts of the Syrian opposition that want a proper transition to a free and democratic Syria.”
“My concern is that if the UK with others is not helping the opposition, and helping to shape and work with it, it is much more difficult to get the transition we all want”, said Mr Cameron.
To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, practical men are usually the slaves of some bad pundit. In this case, the Prime Minister is the slave of pro-interventionist commentators like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who have been arguing this for months.
“Sooner or later some combination of the opposition groups will indeed control Syria,” she wrote in July.
“The eventual winners…will matter a great deal to the health, wealth and stability of what is still the most geo-strategically important region in the world. Syrians will remember those who remember them, those who cared enough to help save their lives.” Neither history nor recent events substantiate her argument.
As Micah Zenko wrote in response to Slaughter, it assumes a number of things:
First, that the post-Assad political leaders of Syria will be the same individuals who received U.S. weapons…Second, any country not arming the Syrian rebels will be remembered for their lack of enthusiasm, and suffer the wrath of Damascus for some period of time. Third, Syria’s political leaders will closely align their policy preferences with the United States, because the Obama administration armed them – rather than say the preferences of the Qataris or Saudis, who are providing weapons to Syrian rebel groups.
Western support for the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s shows these assumptions to be dubious. Some of its commanders later formed the Taliban, who, when they controlled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, ignored both American and Saudi demands that they kick out Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida because they thought it was in their interests to keep them there.
Internal politics will also determine whether or not opposition groups align with the West.
The newly-created ‘National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ (NCSROF) recently recognised the al-Nusra Front because of its popularity within Syria, even though the United States has listed it as a terrorist group due to its links to al-Qa’ida. Yet the NCSROF is recognised by the British government as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Syrian people and enjoys the full support of the Foreign Secretary.
“[Syrians] need to feel the solid ground of a unified political alternative to the Assad regime”, William Hague declared last week. “The National Coalition has now begun to offer that hope, and it is only right that we give them the recognition they deserve, and the support they need to survive and to prevail.”
Speaking about Afghanistan, Rory Stewart warned: “we should recognise the limits of our knowledge, power and legitimacy.” The same could be said about our deepening involvement in Syria.
Neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Secretary possess the knowledge, power, or legitimacy to shape the internal make-up of the Syrian uprising. Post-war Libya ought to have taught them this. When the Syrians formed a political union with Egypt in 1958, the president warned the Egyptian dictator Colonel Nasser that his people were difficult to govern.
“Fifty per cent…consider themselves national leaders, twenty-five per cent think they are prophets, and ten per cent imagine they are gods.” This accurately describes the opposition to the Assad regime.
British involvement in Syria should reflect its interests, which are limited.
Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis