When the EU recently decided not extend their embargo on arms shipments to Syria – or more accurately, were forced into not extending it by Britain and France – the British Foreign Secretary William Hague tried to justify this by saying that it was necessary to ‘reinforce international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria’, and that it would ‘send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously’ at the proposed peace conference that is to be held in Geneva in June.
The first thing that should be looked at here is what William Hague means when he talks of a ‘diplomatic solution’. Hague has been adamant in the past that any solution to the conflict in Syria must involve President Bashar al-Assad stepping aside, saying as recently as February 2013 that ‘our message to President Assad as always, it is time to go’.
So it would seem that this is essentially what is meant by a ‘diplomatic solution’: that Assad voluntarily agrees to leave power.
This was as good as confirmed by the L.A. Times on May 28th 2013, when they reported that those who were in favour of lifting the EU arms embargo saw it as a way of ‘pressuring Assad to agree to Western and opposition demands that he step down, the only viable outcome of the planned peace conference, according to U.S. officials’ (emphasis mine).
What the U.S. and U.K. appear to have in mind, then, is not so much two sides negotiating in good faith to come to a mutually acceptable settlement, but rather them going into the talks having already determined what the outcome is going to be. A ‘regime change, or else’ conference, if you will. Either Assad agrees to leave power, or they step up their arms shipments to the rebels – which is just military blackmail.
And lurking in the background, of course, are the gruesome spectres of Muammar Gadaffi and Saddam Hussein, two fine examples of what happens to developing world leaders who disobey their Western masters too flagrantly.
But let’s just say that Assad doesn’t ultimately agree to step aside at the conference – and all the signs are that he won’t. This would surely mean the U.K. et al having to go ahead with their threat to send further arms to the rebels (if they aren’t already).
The move has found some sympathetic ears on the broader left in the U.K., on the grounds that with allegedly 80’000+ people now lying dead, ‘we’ must ‘do something’ to help. And while I agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with a desire to ‘help’ those suffering in Syria, here’s a quick run down of what various specialists and aid organisations say will be the effect on the ground in Syria of ‘helping’ via shipping in more arms:
‘providing more weapons will mean prolonged fighting and more civilian deaths, more long-term damage to infrastructure and the economy, and greater poverty in Syria’.
Oxfam: No New Arms Race in the Middle East, May 201.3
‘If the current situation persists, or deteriorates further, increased inter-communal massacres are a certainty, rather than a risk . . . The message from all of us should be the same: we will not support this conflict with arms, ammunition, politics or religion’.
‘rather than opening the door to a political solution, this sort of “intervention-lite” is more likely to encourage escalation on both sides, deepen the civil war, and accelerate spillover to the wider region, while strengthening the resolve of external backers’.
SYRIA: THE IMPERATIVE OF DE-ESCALATION by the European Council on Foreign Relations, pp.1, May 2013.
‘Threatening to send the rebels western weapons may drag them further into the conflict but it is unlikely to change its course in the way Hague hopes. If anything it will prolong and expand it by prompting reciprocal arming from Assad’s allies’.