If we arm the Syrian rebels, how do we stop British bombs and bullets getting to al-Qaeda?

The perils of intervention.

Is it too late to stop Syria’s descent into hell? Since the uprising against the despotic Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, 70,000 people have lost their lives, one million refugees have fled across the border into the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and four million Syrians – a fifth of the population – have been internally displaced. In recent days, the Assad regime has been accused of using chemical weapons in Aleppo and the rebels tried (but failed) to assassinate the Syrian prime minister in Damascus.

The popular uprising long ago morphed into an armed insurgency, backed by a motley alliance of the United States, Europe, Turkey, the Gulf states and . . . al-Qaeda. Syria, a secular state, has been engulfed in the flames of a vicious, sectarian civil war in which both sides want to kill their way to victory. Viable solutions of the diplomatic, non-violent variety are few and far between. “Syria poses the most complex set of issues that anyone could ever conceive,” declared General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, in March.

The clamour for a military intervention in Syria is getting louder – especially following the (as yet unsubstantiated) chemical weapons claims. On the right, there’s the US senator and Republican former presidential candidate John McCain, who, in recent years, hasn’t come across a war he didn’t want the US to fight. The Obama administration, McCain told NBC on 28 April, should arm the rebels, impose a no-fly zone and “be prepared with an international force to go in and secure these stocks of chemical and perhaps biological weapons”.

On the left, there’s the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of the driving forces behind Nato’s 2011 war in Libya. In an interview with me for al-Jazeera English, which will be broadcast in June, he said “there is no question” that a military intervention in Syria, beginning with a no-fly zone, is “doable”. When I asked him how he could be so confident, he shrugged: “Bashar al-Assad is weak . . . a paper tiger."

If only. Assad may be a loathsome dictator but that doesn’t change a central fact: that he continues to command the support of a significant chunk of Syria’s population (Alawites, Christians, some secular Sunnis). Nor does it change his air defences, which are far superior to those of Muammar al-Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Mullah Omar. Syria is believed to have up to 300 mobile surface-to-air missile systems and about 600 fixed missile sites. Oh, and did I mention the chemical weapons?

The experts are much more honest about the limits of military action than the Lévys and McCains of this world. Dempsey, America’s top soldier, has said that he can’t see a military option that would “create an understandable outcome”. His opposite number in the UK, General Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff, has told ministers, “Even to set up a humanitarian safe area would be a major military operation,” according to the Sunday Times of 28 April.

The reality is that even the best-intentioned humanitarian intervention could end up costing hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent lives. Those who flippantly claim that life couldn’t get any worse for the Syrian people should be reminded of Algeria (ten years; 200,000 dead), Lebanon (15 years; 170,000 dead), the Democratic Republic of Congo (ongoing; five million dead) and Iraq (ongoing; 600,000 to a million dead).

Let’s be clear: diplomacy, whether of the coercive or the non-coercive variety, isn’t a panacea. So far sanctions haven’t worked and the Russians continue to bat for Assad in the UN Security Council chamber.

But isn’t it depressing to witness how the west’s interventionists are always waiting for diplomacy to fail? Their targets – Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, Saddam, Gaddafi and now Assad – are always latter-day Hitlers: crazy, irrational, immune to political or diplomatic pressure. To negotiate is to appease.

It is a simplistic, Manichaean view of the world. Yet as the then leader of the Syrian opposition movement in exile, Moaz al-Khatib, acknowledged in September 2012: “Negotiation is not surrendering to the cruelty but it is choosing the lesser of two evils.” (Al-Khatib has since been smeared by some of his fellow rebels – most of whom, admittedly, crave a western military intervention – as an Assad apologist. He has had to stand down as opposition leader.)

Listen to Haytham al-Manna, the anti-interventionist spokesman for the opposition National Co-ordination Committee, whose brother was killed by the Assad regime. “We must adhere to a negotiated political solution in this difficult phase so as to give every Syrian a chance to see the end of destruction,” he wrote in the Guardian on 18 April.

“We cannot let the bloodbath go on like this,” Lévy told me. However, there is little evidence to suggest that sending in our bombers or arming the rebels will ratchet down, rather than ratchet up, the violence. Remember: weapons are fungible. We have no way of preventing the al-Qaeda-affiliated members of the opposition from getting hold of bombs and bullets supplied by Britain and France. Nor does anyone have a credible plan of action for the day after Assad falls.

The west should be pouring water, not fuel, on the Syrian fire. Our ministers should be putting pressure on, and offering incentives to, Moscow to detach itself from Damascus; our diplomats should be trying to convince the Gulf states to rein in the rebels, especially those of the ultra-Islamist, hand-chopping variety; our lawyers should be threatening Assad and his underlings with International Criminal Court indictments.

It may be that none of these options works. But, a decade on from the US-led invasion of Iraq, the alternative – all-out war – is too dreadful to contemplate.

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column also appears, and a columnist for the New Statesman. His new al-Jazeera interview series, “Head to Head”, will begin airing on 7 June

A rebel fighter from the Al-Ezz bin Abdul Salam Brigade in April. Photo: Getty

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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“I will kill myself”: the gay Syrian refugee couple who could be deported from the UK

An EU law means the Home Office could decide to force the couple to leave Britain.

“We haven't any hope this war in Syria will finish. So now we are looking to another country. We're looking to another country to protect us. We haven't got a country anymore.”

Ahmed is a 29-year-old architecture student. In 2013, with a year left of his degree, the Syrian war intensified and he was forced to flee Damascus. He began the arduous journey across Europe with his boyfriend, Said*, hoping to claim refuge in the UK and finish his studies. When they arrived in London last December, he thought the traumatic 4,500km trek across the continent was over. Instead the UK Home Office is threatening the couple with deportation.

When Ahmed left Syria and headed for Istanbul he took nothing with him, hoping his stay would be temporary and that the war would soon end. It was there that he met his boyfriend Said, who, like Ahmed, had left everything behind and joined the city’s estimated 366,000 asylum seekers. They spent two difficult years in Istanbul; neither spoke Turkish, paying for rent and food was a struggle, work was hard to come by and poorly paid. Their relationship was kept strictly secret for fear of any repercussions from those they stayed with. All the while they prayed the situation back home would alleviate and allow for their return.

During his time in Istanbul he received a call from his mother; one of his brothers had been killed in the war. Details of his brother’s death were sparse, with his mother worried about the phone call being tapped, but Ahmed understands that he died trying to protect the district after the Assad regime’s military invaded. Along with one other brother, Ahmed’s mother is all that remains of his family in Syria, with his siblings scattered across Europe and the Middle East. Any lingering optimism of one day returning home, of the war dissipating, faded. With nothing left to keep them in Istanbul and the situation fast becoming untenable, Ahmed and Said decided to move on.

“We stayed together, we supported each other and that made life easier for us,” says Ahmed. “So we decided to not live in Istanbul. There was no chance to stay there. I made a deal with someone to go by boat. We paid money for that, about one thousand dollars. It was so scary to do it. We hadn't any other choice.”

They made their journey across the Aegean Sea with 30 other refugees. Arriving safely ashore, they spent two days in Greece before moving north on foot towards Hungary. They waited at the now closed Hungarian border for two days, uncertain of their next move, until hearing rumours that the Croatian border had been opened.

“We went to Croatia and they [Croatian officials] took us from the border and they put us in a place like a prison,” Ahmed recalls. “It was so bad. We didn't know what happened. We didn't know anything. They took us in a van. It was like a small building with a big campus and it was like there was a big wall around. And cameras everywhere.”

Ahmed estimates that around 500 other refugees were detained at the compound while he was there. During their 48 hour incarceration, they slept outside, were fed three meals a day (usually a bread roll and tuna) and kept completely ignorant about what was to happen to them and why they were there. Eventually officials forced them to register their finger prints and took them to the northern border.

“We refused to do our fingerprints but they said they would not let us go, unless we give our fingerprints,” he says. “They took us from border to border in a van. We have the worst memories there. We didn't know where we were going. We were like animals.”

Passing through Austria, Germany and France, they eventually came to Calais. After spending some time living in the infamous jungle camp, they snuck on to a lorry, crossed the channel and arrived in London. After spending a few nights at his ex-boyfriend’s place, a French-Syrian national and the only person Ahmed knew in the UK, the couple went to the Home Office to file for asylum.

But when they arrived, officials refused to see them. Despite their desperate situation, they were told that they didn’t have an appointment and had to come back in ten days. Instead, they returned two days later, this time assisted by the UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group (UKLGIG), who were concerned that the Home Office was illegally turning people away.

“We went to the Home Office to observe as we were very concerned that they didn't have anywhere to live,” says Paul Dillane, executive director of UKLGIG. “If you're destitute you're allowed to turn up immediately, without an appointment, because what else are you supposed to do? We said to the Home Office if they don't get accommodation today I have to pay for a hotel and we don't have the money for that.”

After arriving at 8am, Ahmed and Said were interviewed by six interrogators, as they tried to establish whether to even register their claim to asylum.  “I didn't expect anything from the Home Office, I just wanted to be legal here,” says Ahmed. “I didn't want financial support. I want to go to university. That's it. If I go to another country where they don't speak English it is difficult for me to finish and start university again.”

Eventually, at 6pm, the Home Office agreed to register them and find them accommodation, albeit temporarily. Ahmed and Said are now living in a small studio apartment in Rochdale. It’s the first time since leaving Syria they have had anything resembling a home, the first time in their lives they have felt able to live openly as a gay couple. Such respite may prove short-lived.

Because Ahmed and his boyfriend first entered Europe through Greece, according to an EU law (the Dublin III Regulation) it’s Greece that should take responsibility for their claim. But as the situation in Greece is now a humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 2,000 arriving every day, the UK government no longer deports asylum seekers there. It’s of little consolation to Ahmed. Having heard nothing for weeks, he received a letter summoning him to the Home Office; according to his lawyer, the Home Office is making plans to transfer the couple back to Croatia.

“Even if legally it's possible, the question is: is it the right thing for the government to do?” asks Dillane. “600,000 refugees have gone through Croatia to Germany, and Croatia is struggling to cope. Not to mention only three gay asylum seekers have ever successfully claimed asylum there.”

If Ahmed and his boyfriend are deported back to Croatia there is no guarantee they will be granted asylum. Just three LGBT refugees have been successful in their applications to Croatia, and with more refugees entering the country every day the country’s asylum network is coming under increasing pressure.

Last September, David Cameron announced that the UK would resettle 20,000 asylum seekers by 2020 and that LGBTI refugees would be included in the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement programme. Despite this, Ahmed and Said could still face deportation.

“David Cameron has said he's very worried about the treatment of gay men in Syria because so many of them have been killed by ISIS, by Dhaesh, and so Britain is going to take gay men from Jordan and Lebanon and bring them here,” says Dillane. “The Prime Minister used LGBT Syrians as justification for air strikes. And this week he has been saying countries need to step up, give more, do more. Yet here are two people you're offloading onto a country that can barely cope. How do those two things fit together?”

Today Ahmed will meet with the Home Office to hear the decision. As far as he and his lawyer are aware, the outcome has yet to be decided; the Home Office could concede and accept their claim to asylum, it could simply decide to postpone any decision to a later date. Ahmed’s fear though is he will be immediately detained and deported to Croatia. Having come this far, losing everything and risking more, it’s a fate he refuses to accept.

“We can't go back. I will not go back,” he says. “I’ve decided if they take me to Croatia I will do anything. I will kill myself. I lost everything. I came here and I lost everything. If they would force me to go to Croatia I don't have anything to lose. It will be the end. To stay here . . . will be a life for us. It will not just be asylum, it will be more than that. It will be a real life. We haven't a life anymore. We haven't a lot of choices. We haven't any choices.”

*name changed to protect anonymity as Said’s family do not know that he is gay.