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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.