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.
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue