Arming the Syrian rebels would be an act of historic folly

Adding weapons to a civil war will only exacerbate Syria's suffering. The UK must not follow the American lead.

The US now claims the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government crosses its "red line", setting in train the "enormous consequences" Obama threatened last year. Yet it is essential we see evidence before we leap to conclusions – Iraq casts a long shadow. We also need greater clarity on what promises of "military support" actually mean. The west would be committing an act of historic folly if it decided to arm the rebels or provide other lethal equipment.

We do not have to follow the American lead. Sometimes good friends tell each other when they are going wrong. In answer to questions from myself and others, the Prime Minister has made it clear that there will be a full debate and vote in the House of Commons before we increase our aid to the Syrian rebels. MPs will certainly hold him to this promise.

Providing lethal support to the rebels, or directly intervening in this civil war, would be foolhardy in the extreme. We must guard against mission creep. The more we edge closer to direct involvement, the more we become responsible for events on the ground. And the more we would find it difficult to extricate ourselves.

How would we track and trace the additional weaponry to ensure it does not fall into the hands of extremists on the rebel side? We know that some factions, such as the al-Nusra Front, are forging links with terrorists and jihadists such as al-Qaeda. Some of the rebel groups have also committed atrocities. Short of placing troops on the ground, it would be very difficult to ensure that any weapons only reach moderate elements. Meanwhile, it beggars belief that some maintain that adding weapons to a civil war will not inflate or add to the suffering. Pouring more weapons into this conflict can only increase the violence and casualties. This is one reason why charities such as Oxfam, which have people on the ground, have publicly argued in recent weeks that the west should not arm the rebels.

We should also be aware of the possible consequences of any such policy beyond Syria’s borders. The debate so far has been couched in terms of the conflict within the country. But Syria represents a melting-pot for a proxy war that is being fought out either directly or indirectly at various levels: whether it is Sunni versus Shia, the west versus China or Russia, or Iran versus Saudi Arabia. Pouring more arms into Syria would not only escalate the violence within the country, it could also extend the conflict beyond Syria’s borders. This would be a mistake of historic proportions. Our track record of arming groups or individuals in the region is not good. We armed the Mujahideen in the 1980s and backed Saddam Hussein when he attacked Iran – only to subsequently find some of these weapons being used against us.

The west should instead redouble its other efforts. There is a huge humanitarian crisis, both in Syria and beyond its borders. Refugee camps in both Jordan and the Lebanon are desperately short of basic amenities. And yet, the west stands by and does very little. Meanwhile, our diplomatic efforts have been half-hearted. The Russians are the elephant in the room and they are organising a conference in Geneva. Yet the west plans to exclude Iran from the talks. This is madness. The old adage that you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends, is apposite. The situation inside Syria is desperate and we should not pass up any opportunity to resolve it, even if it requires swallowing a bitter pill.

We need to learn the lessons of history. Promoting democracy through force of arms is often counter-productive. Democracy is taking root across North Africa and the Middle East, which has received little by means of western aid or assistance. Conversely, it is struggling in Iraq or Afghanistan, despite the high cost to the west in blood and treasure.

Interventions in the past have tended to have an 'embedding' effect. If anything, they have had the unintended consequence of strengthening existing regimes. It is notable, for instance, that communism has survived longest in those countries that have engaged militarily with the west: Korea, China, Vietnam and Cuba. Persuasion through diplomacy and ‘soft power’ has often been far more effective.

Our record of intervention in the Middle East, in particular, has not been good. I fear with Syria it will be no different. Let us hope we do not repeat the errors of the past.

John Baron is Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and a member of the foreign affairs select committee

Syrian rebel fighters belonging to the Martyrs of Maaret al-Numan battalion leave their position after a range of shootings on June 13, 2013 in the northwestern town of Maaret al-Numan. Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496