LibLink… Menzies Campbell MP: Syria needs Britain’s help but it does not need our weapons

Menzies Campbell has written an article for the Guardian about our role in the conflict in Syria in which he expresses concern about Government plans to veto an extension of the arms embargo. The first problem he identifies is that of working out who the good guys amongst the opposition are:

How would you identify those groups among Assad’s opponents who would be legitimate recipients of arms on the ground that their values of democracy and human rights are said to be the same as ours? The range of opponents is both complex and extensive. Radical Islamists are becoming more and more influential and powerful, not least since they are funding their activities by plundering Syrian reserves and selling oil on the black market. They most certainly do not share our values of democracy and human rights. How would you prevent arms from falling into their hands? They have proved themselves to be as brutal as Assad. Remember, too, that when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, the US supplied prodigious amounts of weapons to the Mujahideen to help them to resist the invaders. Some of these weapons were used against those who supplied them when it became necessary to take on the Taliban after 9/11.

And if you do decide to send stuff in, what do you give?

One of the, as yet, unanswered questions is what kind of arms would you provide? Modern weaponry is increasingly sophisticated, requiring both training and expertise. There is no point in sending arms if the recipients are unable to use them. One tempting answer to that conundrum would be to send both military and civilian technicians to provide the necessary assistance. This might not be “boots on the ground” as we understand it, but those who were deployed would provide inviting targets for Assad forces and propaganda for his claim that the conflict is being driven by foreigners intent on bringing down his government.

And what can we do if we don’t send in arms?

People ask: what can we do? There are no elegant solutions in Syria. We can give training and support to those who can be established as holding the same values as ourselves. We can badger those nations who can afford to provide the financial assistance in support of the humanitarian refugee effort in the countries bordering on Syria. We can throw our weight behind the tentative joint diplomatic approach of Russia and US with its effort to convene a conference on Syria. We can caution Israel against getting involved. We can persuade, cajole and bully countries in the region that they have a stake in the outcome and that continuing destabilisation could have damaging consequences for them all.

To read the article in full, including a discussion on the respective positions of Russia and the US, go here.

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12 Comments

  • A thoughful article by Menzies Campbell that highlights the difficulties of a piecemeal approach to the Syrian Civil War.

    I have expressed my views in a recent article Saving what’s left of Syria arguing for a Bosnia type approach to this crisis. The Dayton accords brought an end to an equally intractable conflict and the peace has held for the past 18 years.

    As a permanent member of the UN security council, the UK has a leading responsibility (along with other permanent members of the security council) to protect the citizens of Syria in any way it can. This responsibility is best exercised in my view by supporting the initiatives of the National Syrian Council for a resolution of the Syrian Crisis.

    The World Security Network Foundation stresses the importance of agreeing a Grand Strategy before implementing a no-fly-zone or a land-and sea-blockad supplying weapons to democratic forces only WSN Proposals for Syria

  • A Social Liberal 25th May '13 - 5:07pm

    I take it Menzies is talking about military training and support? If so I am surprised that he recognises that we can find those “hold[ing] the same values as ourselves” in order to supply that military training but that we cannot supply arms to those same people.

    If the west had not dilly-dallied about in the first place we woould not have been in situation we are in now, with extremists on both sides possibly having used chemical weapons. If the islamic extremists have recourse to the manufacture of those weapons then it will only be a matter of time before we see them being used in the west.

  • I simply do not understand the “dilly dallied” comment from A Social Liberal. Both sides have seemed to be largely unpalatable from the outset and getting dragged in has always seemed a lose-lose position. The last thing Europe needs is another Islamic fundamentalist state on Turkey’s borders.

    What has happened in Syria is more fallout from the shameful invasion of Iraq. Without the Iraq disgrace, the west had a chance of finding an accommodation with Assad that could have shifted the regime towards some openness and the Islamic fundamentalist groups would not have been empowered as they have been.

  • Martin,

    I am not so sure that the Iraq war has been a significant factor in the failure to find an accommodation with Assad that would have avoided the empowerment of Islamic fundamentalist groops in Syria.

    Syria were a member of the coalition that forced Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the first Gulf war in 1990/91. They strongly opposed the occupation of Iraq in 2003 and hosted more than 2 million Iraqi refugees while also being the launch area for large groups of jihadists entering Iraq during the occupation.

    There have been extensive efforts made by the Arab League/Gulf Cooperation Council to find a compromise solution with AssadArming the Syrian Opposition all to no avail.

  • Joe, you acknowledge the very factors that have affected Syria that are a result of the invasion of Iraq. Obviously it is not possible to know how Syria would have progressed without these factors, but my suggestion is that these factors have precipitated internal fighting.

  • Jonathan Brown 26th May '13 - 11:22pm

    I’m pretty disappointed with Ming’s article. He suggests the worst of all possible worlds: getting involved without doing so in a way that can lead to anything positive. While we should pursue negotiations, we shouldn’t be under any illusion that the Assad regime considers the alternatives to be ‘win’ or ‘die’, or that the Russians or Iranians see anything to be gained by participating but time. So we should assume the negotiations will lead to nothing.

    If we don’t want to get involved, then we should shut up, provide aid to refugees and wait for the Assad regime to slaughter it’s way to at least a partial victory.

    If we think ‘something should be done’ – and I do – then we should be prepared to get our hands dirty. Not by putting groups on the ground, but by supplying weapons, ammunition, food, fuel and medical supplies to a range of rebel groups – and to civilian opposition organisations. It’s simply lazy to say that ‘we don’t know who are the good guys’. Many of the opposition militias have their own websites, media teams, established commanders and networks of supporters. We’re bound to make some mistakes, but it’s not impossible to identify the more moderate factions – secular and Islamist.

    @ Martin: “Both sides have seemed to be largely unpalatable from the outset”. No, they weren’t. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians in many cities demonstrated peacefully for months, despite the violence used against them by the regime from the start. Most of those who defected from the military – to begin with – did so without taking weapons with them, and indeed sought shelter behind the civilian protesters. And even well into the armed conflict, it’s not hard to find those demonstrating – and fighting – under slogans and banners of unity and tolerance.

  • I think Ming is right to argue against a UK veto of the entire EU sanctions program. This would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We need a common EU sanctions policy that does not commit the EU as a body to military engagement, but has sufficient flexibility to allow EU members such as the UK and France to arm the Syrian Opposition if they determine it is a necessary step in defending civilian populations from further onslaughts.

    On the three key concerns that Ming has raised, I would urge consideration of the following points:

    1. Jonathan Brown rightly comments “It’s simply lazy to say that ‘we don’t know who are the good guys”. The EU has recognised the Syrian National Coalition as the “legitimate representatives” of Syria’s people.
    EU views Syria opposition ‘legitimate’ representative. The coalition includes the Free Syrian Army and specifically excludes the Al Queda affiliated groups that are engaged in Syria for the purposes of their own radical Islamist agenda.

    In addition to the Sunni jihadist groups, the Iranian backed and armed terroist militia ‘Hezbollah’ is openenly engaged on the side of the Assad regime and will almosr certainly carry the conflict into Lebanon. The Syrian population is left largely to defend themselves between these warring ideological/sectarian factions.

    If arms are to be supplied, then it will be important to recognise that, even if the Assad regime falls, the FSA will continue to face armed terroist groups and warlords throughout Syria. The FSA units that are supported by Western arms need to be able to disarm such groups and expel Hezbollah and Al Queda fighters from the country.

    2. On the second question of what to give – a March 2013 press release from Liberal International President Van Baalen MEP and ALDE Leader Verhofstadt MEP stated the following:

    Military support to Free Syrian Army “a necessity”, March 2013

    LI President Hans van Baalen MEP and leader of the ALDE faction in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt MEP have called for a ‘coalition of the willing’ to support the Free Syrian Army with the implementation of no-fly zones and the supply of arms. The two liberal leaders have made this statement following a meeting in Brussels with General Selim Idriss, the chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army.

    According to the two liberals, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton has to make proposals to the 27 EU Member states. In their view, Lady Ashton’s response is currently “mostly passive”.

    In the view of the two liberal leaders, EU Member States are free to join a coalition with amongst others the United States, the United Kingdom and France, or to restrict their contribution to the insurgents to humanitarian support and the supply of so-called non-lethal military equipment. General Idriss indicated that the Free Syrian Army would be able to deal a fatal blow to the army of President Assad within a month provided that it would have got access to anti-tank and anti-aerial weaponry. The allocation of military support would also prevent extremists from hijacking the rebellion. According to Idriss now 10 per cent of the Anti-Assad Coalition is made up of extremist fighting groups. This percentage is expected to increase the longer the Anti-Assad Coalition is left on its own.

    In the Third question posed by Ming – what can we do if we don’t send in arms and the various suggestions put forward:

    – training and support to those who can be established as holding the same values as ourselves. I understand US forces are already providing such training and support in Turkey and Jordan.

    – badger those nations who can afford to provide the financial assistance in support of the humanitarian refugee effort in the countries bordering on Syria. The UN humantarian mission is undertaking such an effort.

    – throw our weight behind the tentative joint diplomatic approach of Russia and US with its effort to convene a conference on Syria. We, along with many others, have supported a political solution from the beginning.

    – caution Israel against getting involved. Isreal will make its own assessments of its security needs.

    – persuade, cajole and bully countries in the region that they have a stake in the outcome and that continuing destabilisation could have damaging consequences for them all. This is Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Russia, Iran and the Gulf States. UK and EU diplomacy in this area is somewhat subordinate to US influence.

  • Jonathan Brown 27th May '13 - 6:11pm

    Although I don’t believe for a second that Idriss is right that the regime would collapse within a month of the opposition being provided with arms, and it’s true that arming the opposition would be complicated, and would doubtless end up with at least some of the weapons ending up in the hands of people we don’t like.

    But continuing to pretend that our current position is safe, sustainable, supportive of democracy, supportive of ‘peace talks’, etc. is actually turning more and more Syrians against us, and does nothing to address the fact that the extremists are already getting anti tank and anti aircraft weapons (in very small numbers). Sitting on the sidelines or even undermining the moderate opposition, as I believe our current policy is doing, is only strengthening the extremists on both sides.

    I highly recommend the following articles on the FSA. The first argues that the FSA is divided and disorganised: http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/the-free-syrian-army-doesnt-exist/ The second that the FSA does have a genuine military structure that could be successfully expanded if supported with weapons: http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/the-free-syrian-army-is-growing-stronger-every-day-by-koert-debeuf-response-by-lund/

    The immediate point I want to make by posting these however is that with effort it IS possible to distinguish between the different elements of the opposition.

  • Surely Iran and Russia will now be prepared to be far more public in arming the regime. The stacks will be raised and more people will suffer.

    I went to hear someone from Save the Children talk about the situation in Syria and I suggest our response should be to donate to them or UNICEF who will make sure money goes to help refugees. Ironic that our government who will not relax their condition’s on aid in Syria in terms of allowing aid agencies to spend it without the level of audit trail you can have in a more stable environment want to give lots of weapons to armed groups.

  • Simon,

    I think it is important not to lose focus on the obstacles to be overcome in delivering humanitarian aid that can help alleviate the suffering of internally displaced Syrians andrefugees. The recent UN report on the difficulties encountered is truly shocking Syria: with aid efforts dramatically hobbled, UN officials call on Council to act.

    Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos calling on the Security Council to at last do something to end the horror said “I cannot overstate the seriousness of the current situation in Syria, We all look to this Council to guarantee the peace and security of the people of our world. My appeal to this Council is on behalf of the Syrian people, but it is also on behalf of all those seeking to assist them. We are losing hope. We cannot do our jobs properly. We look to you to take the action necessary to end this brutal conflict.”

    The UK aid program to Syria is primarily channeled through UN bodiesUK AID SYRIA RESPONSE with approximately £1m of a tptal of £171m allocated to Save the Children refugess aid programs in Lebanon and Iraq.

    Members of our local party are participating in a charity walk to raise funds for Save the Children.

  • I don’t expect it will make much difference, but the UN Human Rights Council are debating an emergency resolution today calling for a ceasefire in Qusayr and demanding access for United Nations and other humanitarian agencies to all civilians affected by the conflict by authorizing cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid as an urgent priority. U.N. Rights Council’s Resolution Calls for End to Fighting in Syrian Town

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