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Wednesday, March 06, 2013 

If Assad's deluded, what does that make Hague?

By any measure, that the number of people to flee Syria has now reached 1 million is a uniquely grim milestone.  Ultimately, the disaster in the country is not down to indifference or impotence on our part, but rather one of competing geopolitics.  Saudia Arabia and Qatar see the eventual downfall of Assad as the first step in the fightback against Iran, whilst Russia prefers the devil it knows.  China has allied with Russia partly in response to the abuse of the responsibility to protect in Libya, and partly down to not having any real interests in the country.  Ourselves and the Americans also have little in the way of business interests in Syria, unlike Libya, and the Syrian army has shown itself to be a completely different proposition to Gaddafi's military, making the fact we long decided against another military intervention a very good thing indeed.  We find ourselves therefore in the bizarre position of supporting an opposition that has over time became ever more extreme, which is supplied with weapons by two of the most obscenely kleptocratic regimes on the planet, and yet we still seem to believe that somehow, the end result is going to be something that resembles democracy.

At least, this seems to be where we've ended up.  It's difficult to tell, as William Hague's statement to the Commons today must rank as one of the most confused and contradictory interventions for quite some time.  In theory, according to Hague, we're still pushing for a diplomatic solution, except as he admits the chance of one is "slim".  Our policy then "cannot stand still", and "practical assistance" to the opposition must go "hand-in-hand" with diplomacy.  Along with further genuinely non-military equipment that will save lives, we're also likely to be supplying "armoured four-wheel drive vehicles" (one suspects the Syrians will shortly be burdened with our unwanted and unlovely Snatch Land Rovers that worked so well in Afghanistan) so that the leaders of brigades of the FSA can travel around slightly more safely, as well as body armour, which would save more lives if it was given to civilians rather than fighters, but that doesn't seem to be the point.

Indeed, according to Hague the main reason Syria now matters so much is the growth of extremism in the country.  Not so long ago the majority of the media and our own politicians were accusing the regime of attacking itself when car bombs went off, accepting without question the claims of the Free Syrian Army that they had nothing to do with such incidents.  Now that it looks as though the al-Nusra Front is running the show (according to Juan Cole they were the ones who seized the city of Raqqah at the weekend), it turns out that Assad's claims of the opposition being terrorists and al-Qaida weren't all that far off the mark, if a little premature.  Hague says we can't allow Syria to become "another breeding ground for terrorists", yet Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the National Coalition we've recognised as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Syrian people and who he also praises has repeatedly defended al-NusraAs Ghaith Abdul-Ahad set out in the LRB, it's all but impossible to determine which brigades and battalions are "moderate" and which are "extreme", so how on earth can we be sure that our aid will go to the right people?

The answer is that we can't, and we have no intention of ensuring it only goes to moderates.  It's been apparent for quite some time that training of certain groups by special forces has been going on, and the news that heavier weapons are now reaching some of the rebels suggests that any qualms the Saudis and Qataris had about the dangers of anti-aircraft guns falling into the wrong hands have now been overcome. The implication from Hague is that before long, we too will be supplying weapons, again presumably only to "save lives".  As Douglas Alexander pointed out, putting more weapons into the mix in a burgeoning civil war where neither side seems capable of outright victory is likely to achieve the exact opposite. As for what happens to them afterwards, I'll repeat that I'd drop any concerns if they were swiftly sent to Gaza where Hamas certainly would use them to defend Palestinians from Israel, but I suspect this isn't what Hague and friends have in mind.

The reality is that we're continuing to pretend we have some sort of influence when in fact we have next to none. Hague says that to do nothing would be a betrayal of our foreign policy aims, yet our approach so far hasn't prevented the situation on the ground today from developing, one where 10,000 people have died in the past two months and Islamists with alleged links to the local al-Qaida franchise are in the ascendant.  Nothing Hague proposed today is going to alter that, and it could well potentially make things worse.  Doing that nothing seems vastly preferable by contrast.

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