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.
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