Coffee House

Cameron wants to change the military balance in Syria, but how do you do that without arming the Islamists?

16 June 2013

6:20 PM

16 June 2013

6:20 PM

David Cameron and Vladimir Putin have just concluded their pre G8 talks, the main topic of which was Syria. Cameron wants to use the next few days to try and persuade the Russians to stop backing Assad; the weapons they’ve been sending him have enabled him to gain the upper hand on the rebels militarily.

Cameron instinctively wants to do something about the slaughter in the Levant for both strategic and moral reasons. As one figure intimately involved in British policy making on Syria told me earlier, ‘The one certainty is that, if nothing is done, not only will lives be lost, not only will Assad not negotiate, but we will also not stop radicalisation.’


Those inside government who agree with Cameron on Syria argue that if the conflict continues on its current course: Assad will be triumphant and an even more brutal dictator than before, Russia’s strategic position in the Middle East will be strengthened, Iran and Hezbollah will be triumphant, and there’ll be a flow of radicalised, Islamist fighters out of Syria. They maintain that you have to change the military balance, to bring Assad to the negotiating table—and not as a man who believes that victory is his.

But, here’s the rub, changing the military balance means giving the rebels arms and support. If you do that, as one senior adviser to Cameron warns, you could all too easily end up arming al Qaeda given that the moderates in the opposition are now outnumbered and outmuscled by Islamist extremists. It is impossible to see how this conundrum can be resolved. It is for this reason that, reluctantly, I have concluded that it would be best for Britain to stay away from this terrible, brutal conflict.

The Spectator’s debate on whether the West should intervene in Syria is on the 24th. Click here if you want to come.

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Show comments
  • Mynydd

    A few years ago the MOD had to admit that it could not account for all its arms and equipment. Now Mr Cameron/Hague are about to send arms to the anti-government forces in Syria but only to those who are good rebels, what a joke. If the army can loose control, and not know where all its equipment is, how on earth can Mr Cameron/Hague control the distribution of arms in Syria is beyond me. I can just see it, a long line of rebels being asked “are you an Islamist extremist or al Qaeda”? no sir I just want a free Syria, OK joint the missile training team best of luck.

  • Wessex Man

    I’m beginning to get the awlful deep sick feeling in my stomach that I had when members of my family had to go and fight Blair’s wars and specialist train other nutter Regimes that ‘might’ be of interst to us in the future.

  • Ian Walker

    You blockade the Russian arms shipments (nothing you can do about the Saudi and Omani ones), and use cruise missiles to degrade Assad’s air force in particular and armour/artillery if possible.
    If both sides are reduced to chucking rocks at each other, then it becomes a fair fight, and more importantly, we don’t suffer the inevitable consequence of a British SAM taking down an airliner full of British people.

  • Lady Magdalene

    Changing the military balance is Syria is not our job. It is nothing to do with us.
    Cameron no business involving us in this conflict. It’s not our fight.
    This constant meddling in other countries’ affairs is doing the UK no favours and a great deal of harm.

    • RobertC

      And our credit card is maxed out!

  • Curnonsky

    We must hope that Assad and the Iranian/Russian/Hezbollah axis win the war – then Al Qaeda and the Saudis would turn their attention to fighting Tehran instead of London and New York. The one thing that will stop Islam from conquering the West (because heaven knows the West isn’t capable of defending itself) is internecine religious war between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis. The cold truth is we should be hastening that war.

  • Daniel Maris

    I suppose we could have sent tanks and rifles to the Germans for the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936. That would have made about as much sense as this.

  • Blorgh

    Our values are in serious trouble if a former KGB agent is supporting the Syrian minorities while our own governments are supporting the agenda of Saudi Arabia…

    • RobertC

      Not ‘ours’, but Cameron’s!

  • Alexsandr

    I dont believe posters here arguing which set of savage killers we should arm. We should leave them to get on with it.

  • Augustus

    It would be improvident for the West to intervene in the Syrian war in any meaningful sense because the Islamist rebel leadership has a clear doctrine. They want to undo what they see as the artificial states created by the West in the Middle East. A return of the great Islamic state is what they are about. Iraq would be part of a future Islamic Syria after the Shiites there are defeated. The Islamist agenda stipulates that Syria is only the beginning. The destruction of Israel (the enemy of the Islamic nation) is the next objective. After this the Islamic mission will focus on the rest of the world. Assad may be bad, but the Islamist revolutionaries are even worse. What is strange about people like Cameron is why, when the artificially created Arab states are already crumbling, he wants to grant rebel terrorist movements the ability to create yet another Islamist state which is predicated on the stated goal of destroying Western traditions and beliefs.

  • starfish

    Far too many armchair generals. Stay well away from Syria. There is no meaningful contribution we can make other than to make things worse. Now putin has decided assad’s survival is in Russia’s interest we are stuffed.

    • pinkgunnergirl

      And Putin has indeed decided this. His joint press conference with Cameron was a masterstroke.

      Called Cameron out on arming cannibals and those acting contrary to the humanitarian and cultural values of Europe, ie the REBELS. Made clear Russia is arming the ‘legitimate’ Government of Syria and totally humiliated Cameron. Putin is the man and he shown Cameron up to be the amateur he is.

      • Blorgh

        When your moral position is as convoluted as that of Obama or Cameron (or Hollande – heaven help us!), it is easy to be humiliated.

  • David B

    When your in a no win situation keep your head down and minimise the loss.

    Who ever wins both sides will produce extremists.

  • Tom Tom

    Saudi Arabia is supplying manpad SAMs to the “rebels”. Watch airliners get downed. The Russians see the corridor from Syria to Chenchnya that The West is using to destabilise Russia. It is an existential threat worth fighting a major war over. Cameron is playing with fire. 350 Royal Marines in Jordan, let’s hope they don’t tangle with Russian Zaslon forces. If Cameron really wants to fight a full-blown war he can kiss his equipment in Afghan goodbye just as the French left 50 tanks behind. Taliban envoys are in Tehran. This will be a bloody rout extracting from Afghan. Cameron is a bigger fool than Blair. This game will probably see the destruction of the British Army – what Iraq exposed and Afghan made clear, Syria will finish off

    • alabenn

      The biggest problem with your post is that in all probability you will be right.
      The last twenty years have not been the finest of any hours for any of the forces.
      It started with the captured airman in the first Gulf War, one became a TV celebrity of sorts” mealy mouthed words about their mistreatment, no action.
      Then the craven surrender to a couple of Iranian canoes with outboard motors of Royal Navy personal, as a Frigate stood by watching.
      The gutless withdrawal from Basra obtained with massive bribes to local militias.
      Topped off with the totally humiliating withdrawal from the frontline in Afghanistan, ordered out by the US marines in case of total defeat at the hands of a bunch of ragheads.
      What must the people who fought in the Falklands think is unimaginable.
      We now have the most heavily armed social workers in the world.
      This is not down to the frontline commanders and men, it is down to Blair and Brown promoting weaklings who spouted the politically correct nonsense that they use as a sop to keep the party members happy.
      My grandson currently in Afghanistan will probably be the last generation of my family to serve in the forces.
      These politicians are shameless and the country will rue the day they let this happen.

      • pinkgunnergirl

        @TomTom @alabenn:disqus

        GREAT posts! Both very very good.

      • JamesdelaMare

        Alabenn – Yes, and one of the naval ratings burst into tears when somebody took his mobile phone. Another was an overweight female. Shocking. Absolutely shocking. Hardly worth having a navy if that’s the best it can do. And to think all those courageous servicemen were killed and maimed only a generation ago in six years of war for this!

    • dalai guevara

      One step closer to a fully integrated European corps.

  • pinkgunnergirl

    Assad is not a brutal dictator, he is brutal to Islamic extremists but not ordinary civillians. Assad is a moderate, under him Christians and other minorities are protected and Islam is not ruthlessly enforced. The West should be supporting Assad, Putin is right and I hope he tells Cameron where to go.

    Why on earth does Cameron want to arm the same people who have been fighting our soldiers in Afghanistan, who will cause havoc and rule with terrible viciousness if they get rid of Assad. Cameron is aligning himself with the most extreme elements possible, why? If the Tory party does not wake up and put an end to this nonsense, asap, then they deserve what will happen at the next election. Cameron will make Major’s result in 1997, look like a success.

    • Jaques Boban

      Do Assad’s scuds, and cluster bombs contain rose petals in your head?

      And you are genuinely suggesting that we should be supporting a tyrant who’s forces butcher whole families? Wow, our forefathers who fought tyranny would surely be turning in their graves if we did.

      Would Churchill have backed a monster like Assad do you think, because I don’t.

      • pinkgunnergirl

        I can say with all my heart YES, Churchill would back Assad. Assad is a moderate, who protects Christians and other minorities and does not ruthlessly enforce Islam. Churchill would not be on the side of Sunni extremist, jihadist, Al Qaeda rebels who execute 14 yr old boys, use chemical weapons and are proven cannibals. That I can say with absolute clarity.

        In western terms Assad is no Angel but compared to the rebels, he is the Angel Gabriel.

        BTW Assad is using the military, cluster bombs, scuds etc on the REBELS, understand? The rebels are the ones killing Syrian civilians and causing a refugee crisis.

    • Steven Efstathiou

      One thing at a time, pinkgunnergirl.

      ‘Assad is not brutal… to ordinary civilians’

      You mean sending in attack helicopters to slaughter ordinary men and women who were demanding a say in the running of their own country was a mark of benign dictator?

      ‘Why on earth does Cameron want to arm the same people who have been fighting our soldiers… ‘

      I assume that you have either forgotten or are ignorant of the fact that Assad and his criminal gang facilitated the movement of Al-Qaeda operatives and material through Damascus into Iraq in order to kill and injure US and British troops. That Al-Qaeda in Iraq has now taken the fight back to Assad is, in the parlance, called blow-back.

    • Makroon

      It’s the (new) domino theory.
      Israel wants a destabilised Syria and a bombed out Iran.
      Obama will do the absolute minimum to keep Netanyahu quiet – some arms to the Syrian insurgents.
      Cameron (following Blair), wants to suck up to Obama, so also wants to send some arms (presumably from the rather lush “aid” budget).
      The basis for UK foreign policy, 2013.

  • DrCoxon

    In the early 20th century the Foreign Office gave gold sovereigns to some tribes, the India Office gave gold sovereigns to the other tribes. HMG always had contact with the winners.
    Mr Cameron, you do not have gold sovereigns. Concentrate on domestic problems, please give up strutting on the world stage.

    • JamesdelaMare

      DrC – It would be enough if we simply stopped him strutting on the British stage. The Conservative party must have reached its nadir in this extraordinary coalition. Even worse than Heath’s time and God knows that was bad enough.

      • DrCoxon

        Thank you. I agree.

  • andagain

    So if we do something, Al-Queda might benefit but if we do nothing, Iran will certainly benefit?

    If you do that, as one senior adviser to Cameron warns, you could all too easily end up arming al Qaeda given that the moderates in the opposition are now outnumbered and outmuscled by Islamist extremists.

    OTOH, if you arm the moderates they might suddenly gain a lot more supporters, and will probably get a lot more muscle.

    • paulus

      Everyone is focused on people and processes we need to move along and look at outcomes.

      The ancient cities in the middle east now lie in ruins, millions of people are displaced, the Syrians can still remember living in peace with their neighbours but hatred is gripping them.

      This war is unwinnable,one side or the other can inflict a military defeat, but there can be no victory.

      Some commentators have suggested the `window to intervene has close’ hopefully, any intervention would have been decisive, decisive that armageddon and slaughter would have escalated.

      Its time for the Russians to take the lead and tell Assad to broker a peace and build a civil society: the rule of law and an independent judiciary being central. That the majority will fnd acceptable.

      Am I looking to start WW111 ? No we want it avoided, its the butterfly effect small things can make a great impact.

      • andagain

        Why should the Russians want to do that now rather than last year? And why should Assad obey?

  • Magnolia

    Dave should have a quiet word with Vlad.

    He should tell him how much he enjoys reading Anna Karenina (the book, not the film) and then let slip that he is having a lot of trouble reducing the deficit because of flocks of health tourists, with Russian sounding names, coming here to get free investigations and treatment on the NHS and that he is minded to continue this kind gift from the UK ( he’s a regular kind of guy) but that it might all come unstuck if he should need some cash (pronto) in order to fight another unwanted war.
    Then stand well back and smile broadly with fingers crossed …..

  • David Cameron

    The only hope for Syria is support for Assad so that the country can be restored to the balance it had before the Islamic terrorists got involved. From such a position of stability there is the possibility of various democratic developments. But while we are even considering arming dangerous Muslim thugs there is no future at all for Syria.

    Church services have been held again in cities that Assad has recaptured. Under the Muslim terrorists Christians have been driven out, murdered and maimed.

  • Jaques Boban

    Decrying the entire Syrian opposition as extremists, with no hope of reaching the moderates, seems like a cruel excuse to do nothing but sit and watch as a brutal dictator butchers his own people (or at least those who don’t belong to the same sect as him, which unfortunately is the majority of Syrians).

    By doing nothing we have seen extremism grow and grow in Syria. Are we so stupid to believe that won’t carry on if we continue to do nothing?

    Assad clearly hasn’t won as some claim. Even if he is currently winning, it is no excuse to turn the other way as he finishes his butchering job.

    • Abhay

      So you seem to know who the Jeffersonian democrats are among the Syrian ‘rebels’, the ones who read Tom Payne, Adam Smith and value liberty and pluralism. Why don’t you name them?

      • David Cameron

        I was talking to someone who had been out to visit some of the rebel groups. One group wants all Christians to have to wear a badge, like the Nazis did to Jews, and wants to make them pay a tax for not being Muslims. While the other group had spent all the money they had got from the West on Xboxes.

        Neither are the sort of people we should be dealing with.

        • Jaques Boban

          Decrying all the opposition as extremists, as you are, is Assad’s trick as well as Putin’s.

          That doesn’t make it morally right however. Far from it.

          As I said, decrying the entire opposition as extremists is a cruel excuse to turn the other way as a tyrant butchers his own people. It is also clearly playing the game of a brutal dictator.

          It’s a famous quote, but “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” rings true with Syria.

          Good men are currently doing nothing on the basis of a blanket assumption perpetrated by the monster himself committing the evil, and happily parroted by many willing to ignore the suffering of millions.

          • pinkgunnergirl

            You are spouting utter crap!!

            Assad is a moderate and is fighting the extremist jihaidists. It’s the rebels who are killing Christians and others, using chemical weapons, are cannibals, killing children for alleged blasphemy and murdering innocent Syrians.

            The west need to support Assad, Russia is right.

          • Abhay

            Why have you avoided my question?

            You seem to know who the Jeffersonian democrats are among the Syrian theocratic ‘rebels’, the ones who read Tom Payne, Adam Smith and value liberty and pluralism. Why don’t you name them?

          • Makroon

            Yes, there are good men – intellectuals, students, academics, admirers of “western democracy” etc.
            They are relatively few in number, pretty useless in a nasty gunfight, and have no chance at all of prevailing against their Salafist “colleagues”.

        • RobertC

          “.. and wants to make them pay a tax for not being Muslims ..”

          Standard Sharia, so what’s new?

    • Blorgh

      Jaques, I could argue against your rosy view of the rebels for hours. But my biggest problem with your attitude is that you insist (insist!) we “do something”. Have you stopped to ask yourself if all this endless interventionism is actually making the world a better or a worse place? Who are we to act as king makers in other people’s countries? What do we really know about other parts of the world? What new evils do we risk creating through interference? You realize, I hope, that Osama bin Laden was a product of American meddling and that Iran hates us today because we overthrew their first democratic government – right?

      Interventionism has a time and place in this world, but the Syrian civil war isn’t it! We have no business getting in the middle of a Saudi-Iran proxy war.

  • paulus

    We must pressurize the Russian with bluster and bribe, there is something the Russians want, appeal to his machismo, we want a ceasefire imposed before the weekend , the russians could deliver it. Or ultimately we can threaten the russians.

    • Jaques Boban

      You have too much faith in the Russians I fear.

      If they genuinely don’t care that their weapons and backing for Assad have already murdered thousands of innocent Syrians and turned the country to rubble, then I doubt they will change their tact over bluster and bribe.

      They’ve already backed their horse and have no shame in the consequences.

      • pinkgunnergirl

        Assad has not ‘murdered thousands of innocent Syrians’, the rebels have and it’s the rebels who have used chemical weapons not Assad and that is from the UN.

        Assad and the army are fighting the rebels who are mainly jihadists just like the British army would fight if thousands of foreign jihadists came to Britain in order to over throw the British Government. Assad is a moderate.

        • Jaques Boban

          Very good, pinkgunnergirl; blindly parroting the same line as Assad, whilst ignoring the overwhelming truth to the contrary.

          Also, very good for cherry picking the UNs findings on the rebels, but completely ignoring the bulk of the findings of the same report which is against Assad’s forces and their terrible atrocities.

          I don’t know if it is your aim, but Assad would certainly be very proud of your passionate defense of him, even in the face of a tidal wave of evidence regarding his horrific actions.

          Why are you completely ignoring the UNs overwhelming findings on Assad’s regime, but are more than happy to cherry pick any possible negative findings against the rebels?

          Your opinion of the rebel make up is obviously equally as skewed to Assad’s propaganda as well.

          How strange.

          Personally, I’d find it hard to condone a butcher who murders his own people on the basis of his own propaganda.

          • pinkgunnergirl

            Again, Assad is not murdering his own people, he is murdering Islamic jihadist Al Qaeda rebels who have come to Syria to over throw Assad and establish a Taliban 2.0.

            Assad is a moderate and the President of Syria, he damn well should be defending Syria from the rebels. If a group of extremist rebels suddenly rocked up in Britain, armed to the teeth, intent on overthrowing the British Government and using chemical weapons on ordinary Britons. Do you think the British Government would use the full might of the Military against them? Of course and they would be right to do so. That is only what Assad is doing.

            • C.E.Chase

              So, how long have you been sleeping with Assad ? seriously, your defense of the man borders on the obsessive/possessive. Your arguments in his defense are so very repetitive/rote/passionate, that they sound more like a jilted lover who is still pining, void of reason and logic. I can assure you all those Syrian refugees overflowing the camps and borders of Jordan are not pining for Assad’s victory as you are. They are encamped not in a cozy arm chair casually cruising the net. No m’am. Those women are dealing with filth, disease, hunger and rape, on a level that you, Assad and his benefactor Putin, could not possibly imagine. The sad thing is, the window for effective change in Syria has closed. That window was still open early last Summer when the eyes of the world and world leaders were focused on the coming Olympics and the US presidential election. While Romney called for intervention, Obama deflected, while the world and its leaders waited for a US response. A weak one came but too late….the “thin red line” …Obama stated that “if” Syria used chemicals/weapons of mass destruction, the US would act. He didn’t specify how, because he hadn’t quite worked that one out – he was too busy trying to get elected for another 4 years. Now that he’s back in, his bluff has been called. It’s not the right time for anybody to go into Syria but it now looks like the US has to act and it will. When Obama asked his generals what to do with Afghanistan at the beginning of his first term, he was told they had to ramp up. Once it was out there with the media, he had to move on his generals recommendations and ended up sending more troops. There is now going to be another dog in this fight.

        • Charles Martel

          They`re here already.

    • pinkgunnergirl

      Ha ha! Threaten the Russians….good luck with that, Putin will laugh in your face.

      • paulus

        No he wont, or we will just bomb the fuck out of syria nothing will be able to move above ground. I think youve overstepped yourself, now go back to a playground. and watch the magic that is the american military smash everything in their path.

        • pinkgunnergirl

          Who will do that, the American’s, the British? You’ve been reading too many fairy stories.

          Putin won’t be losing any sleep, don’t worry about that!!

        • Dicky14

          Threaten the Russians or bomb Syria? Those are the choices that you’ve arrived at? Geez – that Sir, is blethering lunacy. You want to initiate WW3 as a bluff? I..I, no.

    • Tom Tom

      You have a funny name….Paulus ? wasn’t he the only German Field Marshall to surrender ?

      • paulus

        Im sure that was von paulus, and im sure there was a cluch of them all surrendering at the end of the war. Considering that Germany was less than 80 yrs old its not much of a record. Like everything else myths generally don’t last a hundred years. Im sure the invicibility of the Macedons was tested in that time and found wanting.

        Im sure Brunswick, Hohenhoe and Blucher executed a form of surrender after Jena for the Prussian army. Context in History is crucial, timing is everthing. The time has now arrived to force a negotiation.

  • Andy

    Simple answer is you can’t. Anyway that boat has sailed. Assad has won. The window of opportunity was missed and the Iranians etc stepped up to the mark before our dozy lot had got out of bed – with or without pyjamas.

  • Rhoda Klapp8

    You can’t stop radicalisation in Aylesbury, how ya goona do it in Aleppo?

    • Andy

      Quite so. Our politicians don’t give a damn about radicalisation in Dewsbury etc.

      • Abhay

        Absolutely agree.

        During New Labour there was growing extremism at home while they fought wars overseas. The story continues. They want to deal with radicals in that toxic swamp of radicals, middle east, while closer at home the battle against radicals and extremists is blunted by political correctness and cultural confusion.

        • Jaques Boban

          New Labour have an awful lot to answer for, including an increase in extremism.

          Their actions shouldn’t be used as excuse when a foreign tyrant is genuinely causing huge suffering however, when inaction has a knock on effect with a rise in extremism.

          Extremism needs to be tackled. Ignoring the Syrian issue, as we are, isn’t doing that. Two years plus down the line with that quagmire and we can now say that with certainty.

          • pinkgunnergirl

            Assad is not causing suffering to the Syrian people, the rebels are.

            Assad and the military are fighting and killing the rebels, the rebels are killing civillians, using chemical weapons, ruthlessly enforcing extremist Islam and causing a refugee crisis.

            The West should follow Russia and support the moderate, least bad option and that is President Bashar Al-Assad.

          • Abhay

            So you spew forth rubbish and then persist in annoying others. What will it take for you to collect your clay toys and go back to the cave you came out of? That is a serious question.

          • JamesdelaMare

            JB – Until they decide where “extremism” begins and ends, they can’t know where or how the “tackle” it. In the view of many, UKIP is “extremist”, just as Assad is. Some even think that Cameron is extremist! These days normal, run-of-the-mill Conservatives who don’t like “gay marriage”, immigration, and multi-culturalism, and whose views were conventional forty years ago, are branded “fascist extremists”. That’s where the problem is – the shifting sands of political correctness.

  • Alexsandr

    Cameron should learn Syria is nothing to do with the UK and do nothing. Its not his problem.