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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times