The Daily Star
July 30, 2013
By Michael Glackin
Do you remember Geneva II? It’s the high powered diplomatic conference on Syria that a British government official told me was “the priority” in efforts to bring about regime change in Damascus.
Perhaps you recall that the United Kingdom overturned the European Union arms embargo on Syria in a move intended to bolster the Syrian National Coalition’s negotiating power when it came face to face with regime representatives at Geneva II? The dubious logic was that if the U.K., along with France, could supply arms to the rebels, Syrian President Bashar Assad would take fright and rush to negotiate an end to the war – or “step aside” from power, to borrow U.S. President Barack Obama’s curious phrase.
Few were really convinced by the West’s rhetoric about Geneva II, and in the end it has amounted to absolutely nothing. The conference was supposed to take place in June, then it was delayed until July, and now it has fallen off the agenda completely. British government insiders concede Geneva II will not take place before September “at the very earliest” and admit it may not happen this year at all.
Why? Because after more than two years of strong words and no action from the West, Assad has finally regained the upper hand in the Syrian conflict, not just on the ground, where increased help from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah has firmly tilted the balance in his favor, but also in terms of the West’s political calculations.
Obama may now be willing to send arms to the rebels, but the limited and relatively light weaponry he intends to send – automatic weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades – will not achieve the change of regime that Washington and London desired so much but were unwilling to decisively help bring about.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron, increasingly out of his depth, cannot even match Obama’s fruitless token assistance. A revolt within his own party against moves to arm the rebels means that Cameron couldn’t send a pea-shooter to the rebels without first holding a vote in parliament, a vote that he would certainly lose.
Most Conservative parliamentarians are against arming the rebels, either fearing it will simply increase the killing in Syria or because they believe British weapons will end up in the hands of violent Islamists. Arming the rebels is also opposed by the opposition Labour Party, which despite voting as one for the Iraq war, is now against involving the U.K. in what one parliamentarian described to me as “more Middle East adventures that can only cause us harm.”
Washington’s decision to arm the rebels with even light weaponry now puts it in a proxy war against Iran, and with it Hezbollah, which may well play into the party’s hands. Imagine if you will the reaction to footage on the Internet or on television showing Hezbollah waving U.S. weapons they have just captured from rebels?
Crucially, even the language of the conflict is changing within the British government. From confident statements about Assad’s imminent downfall, government officials now talk about the rebels “going underground” and embarking on a clandestine terror campaign in the expectation that Assad will soon resume control of most of the country.
So, from arming rebels and discussing no-fly zones, British policy now appears to rest on some kind of secret resistance that carries out an Irish Republican Army like terror campaign. No prizes for guessing who will be leading the battle there: the Nusra Front.
The West has watched a fledgling struggle for civil rights turn, first, into a fully fledged civil war, and more worryingly now, a conflict that is perilously close to cracking open sectarian fault lines throughout the Middle East, endangering the stability of the region.
Of course, there has been a complete lack of international consensus on removing Assad, but singling out Russia and China as the international bogeymen conveniently ignores the fact that neither Washington nor London was prepared to match their words with action. The debacle of post-invasion Iraq has dominated the West’s political calculations from the first day that Assad’s troops fired on unarmed civilian demonstrators.
But it isn’t just the shadow of Iraq that has hung over the West’s failure to match its lofty words with deeds. The inability of rebel forces to organize and at least bury, if not overcome, their political divisions has made them an unreliable partner.
The SNC has accused the West of betrayal, but the growing sectarian extremism of opposition forces on the ground, the ritual slaughter of those opposed to its agenda which, as the United Nations has said, is on par with the atrocities of the Assad regime, though not on the same industrially organized scale, has played into Assad’s hands.
All this has underlined the fact that a coherent political opposition never really existed until the West invented it in the shape of the SNC in 2012. And yet, Western states had the capability of influencing events in Syria at any time during the last two years, long before the death toll reached the estimated 100,000 at which it currently stands, long before Hezbollah proved to be a game-changer for Assad, and long before the entire country reached the point of no return.
A determined show of strength from the outset, a proper engagement with Russia, something akin to leadership in Washington could have prevented this tragedy. Now events on the ground appear to have passed beyond the ability of any outside player to influence the outcome.
Arming rebels? If only Western decision-makers could grow something akin to a spine when dealing with tyranny. Talk is always the cheapest form of currency in politics, but rarely has coinage been so debased than in the West’s shameful reaction to the Syrian conflict.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 30, 2013, on page 7.