On 31st March 1854, the radical leader John Bright made the first of his great speeches opposing the Crimean War. “I am told indeed that the war is popular”, he proclaimed, “and that it is foolish and eccentric to oppose it”.
A considerable number of my colleagues take a quite contrary view regarding the provision of arms to Syria’s insurgency. Military assistance to the Syrian opposition is not popular, and it is regarded by many as foolish and eccentric to support it.
Many of these reservations are sincere and well-founded. However although I was wary of providing military assistance during the first year of the Syrian conflict, I came to the conclusion last summer that arming Syria’s insurgents was the least bad of a series of unpalatable options. Almost a year on, as the death toll continues to mount and the prospect of a sustainable political settlement is becoming increasingly remote, the argument is increasingly compelling.
The basic case for considering arming the rebels is well-documented, and has been made by both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, as well as myself, in recent weeks. In short, pressure must be brought to bear on Assad in order to force him to agree to a ceasefire and for him to engage seriously in a diplomatic process that might produce an endurable political settlement.
Total victory for either side is not a plausible scenario, but the present stalemate is strengthening and emboldening forces on either side of the conflict that if left unaddressed will have serious ramifications for regional if not global security. Given the support he is receiving from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, it is inconceivable that Assad will make any of the compromises necessary to bring the conflict to an end unless the opposition, over whom he is gaining the upper hand, are given the means of forcing him to do so.
Understandable concerns have been raised about arms falling into the wrong hands. But the “wrong hands” already have them – military assistance to the Syrian National Coalition is designed to rectify the consequences. Extremist elements in the opposition are being supplied by donors in the Gulf and the regime and their paramilitary associates supplied by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. It is only those parts of the opposition that actually represent the legitimate aspirations for self-determination of the Syrian population that have consistently found themselves chronically under-resourced, and their reputation is plummeting in conjunction with their minimal efficacy.
To not provide military assistance to the more moderate elements of the insurgency because of fears of the extremists is therefore to look through the wrong end of the telescope. It is precisely because the more acceptable elements have been ineffective due to their lack of resources that extremist groups have gained a significant foothold.
It is sometimes imagined that military assistance would take the form of one giant airlift of everything the opposition might wish for. It does not work like that. The Syrian National Council will know that any military assistance will come slowly and steadily, with certain conditions attached regarding their use. If the supplies are used in a reasonable way and for the purposes for which they are intended, then more will be forthcoming.
Assurances are bound to be sought not just about the way the weapons are used, but also that the supplies would act as an incentive for greater co-ordination and cohesion amongst opposition fighters and political groupings. Divisions are inevitable when people are keen to disassociate themselves from failure – success begets unity.
Pessimism about our ability to make a difference is understandable, but not wholly warranted. It is often assumed that Britain’s imperial hangover means that we overestimate our influence in the world. Curiously, this has some force when discussing how the UK might thrive as a trading power outside the EU, but quite the contrary applies in relation to security issues.
The glib assertion that ‘Britain is not the world’s policeman’ is of course true. However as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, we have a special responsibility to contribute to the world’s collective security. Under the auspices of the UN from which we derive our legitimacy to carry out the role, we are one of the world’s policemen, if one of relatively modest means. That does not oblige us to intervene in every conflict or to take action that is beyond our capabilities. It does mean that we have certain responsibilities that we must take very seriously indeed.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Foreign Secretary between 1995 and 1997. He will be speaking at the next Spectator Debate on 24 June, debating the motion ‘Assad is a war criminal. The West must intervene in Syria’ with Andrew Green, Douglas Murray, Dr Halla Diyab and more. Click here to book tickets.