Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The U.K. leads on Bashar Assad’s exit

The Daily Star
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
By Michael Glackin

And so to Geneva. Two years and an estimated 70,000-80,000 civilian deaths later, the United States and Russia are poised to bring representatives of President Bashar Assad’s regime together with his opponents in the Syrian National Coalition, or SNC, over the negotiating table. Ironically, they will meet in a city whose name is forever linked with protecting civilians caught up in war zones.

There is still no firm date for the conference, dubbed “Geneva II,” and at the time of writing no firm guarantee that the SNC will attend. The Syrian opposition groups are busy arguing over whether they should negotiate with the Assad regime, and whether they should even participate while Hezbollah has fighters in Syria aiding Assad.

Meanwhile, a United Nations report released this week reminded us again of the human cost of this bloody conflict. It revealed harrowing details of Syrian children being taken hostage, forced to watch torture, and even participate in beheadings. The report accused both sides of abuses but insisted that rebel actions did not “reach the intensity and scale” of abuses committed by pro-government forces.

Geneva II coincides with the United Kingdom and France’s success last month in forcing the European Union to abandon its arms embargo on Syria. Both events are linked, and are taking place at a time when Assad is increasingly emboldened and when the West is fast running out of ideas to bring about his downfall, amid a worsening refugee crisis in Lebanon and Jordan and threats by the Free Syrian Army to take their war into Lebanon against Hezbollah.

A Foreign Office official told me that Geneva II is now “the priority” in the British government’s efforts to push for regime change in Syria. Lifting the EU arms embargo is intended to increase the Syrian opposition’s leverage ahead of the conference. The theory is that by floating the prospect that France and the U.K. could supply arms to the rebels, Assad will be more willing to negotiate an end to the war and presumably negotiate himself out of a job at the same time.

But it is far from certain that this will be the outcome. First, Assad, like everyone else, is aware that the idea of arming the rebels is an Anglo-French project. There is no support for such action in the rest of the European Union, or indeed Barack Obama’s White House. It is worth pointing out that 25 out of 27 EU governments opposed the lifting of the arms embargo. Last month’s vote simply meant that the U.K. and France are now free to send arms if they wish, since the embargo needed unanimity among all 27 governments to continue.

The U.K. and France have been free to send arms since May 31, but British Foreign Secretary William Hague still insists that lifting the embargo does not necessarily mean the U.K. will supply the rebels with weaponry. In the parlance of modern politics, the decision is a “game changer,” but only if France and the U.K. actually ship arms, and at the moment there is little sign of the U.K. doing that.

Second, any move to arm rebels at this late stage will simply prompt Russia to step up its supplies to Assad’s forces, matching or exceeding any weapons sent to the rebels. Russia’s efforts will likely see the arrival in Syria of sophisticated S-300 surface-to-air missiles. Iran will also increase its support for the Assad regime. With this in mind, the French and British effort to arm the rebels at this stage looks like a belated, tawdry and futile attempt to be seen as doing something, after spending two years watching Syria’s suffering from the sidelines.

At the same time, so far Geneva II has only served to underline the increasing fragmentation of an already hapless Syrian opposition, which is now more divided than it was at the first Geneva conference last year.

Indeed, the Foreign Office informed me that there is “a lot of work going on behind the scenes” spearheaded by the U.K.’s envoy to the opposition John Wilkes, who must ensure the opposition is in as “good a shape as possible” for the conference, whatever that means.

But attempts by London to build up the capability of the opposition, to unify it and help it rise to the task of governing Syria have so far been a disaster. Which is why the British desire to end the arms embargo and place so much hope in Geneva II has a rather desperate feel about it. In the absence of a coherent strategy toward the Assad regime, the West has allowed itself to sleepwalk into a situation where it is now suddenly betting on long shots to topple Syria’s president.

If, and it’s still a big if, the U.K. does send weapons, Hague insists it would ensure that the arms go to so-called moderate rebels, and not extremists such as the Nusra Front. But how exactly will France and the U.K. vet those to whom they sell arms?

Much of the fighting on the ground is being led by Nusra. It is inconceivable that rebel groups, given arms by the U.K. or France, would not send them on to Nusra if they were in need of them to achieve a critical victory. This is war after all, and an ugly one at that, not a game of cricket.

Moreover, less than a year ago, in an interview with Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Wilkes insisted the U.K. would not provide funding to groups inside Syria because the government could not be certain of where the money would end up. If the government couldn’t verify where money was going eight months ago, how on earth will it verify where arms are going to today? What has changed?

Unfortunately when I asked the Foreign Office official how they would vet the rebels and differentiate good rebels from bad rebels when sending arms, the official declined to answer what she insisted was “a hypothetical question.” Hypothetical? Small wonder that Assad is feeling more confident the longer the Syrian conflict goes on.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 11, 2013, on page 7.

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