The US is about to arm the Syrian rebels - it's decision time for Cameron

The decision by the Obama administration to provide lethal aid means that the Prime Minister can no longer remain on the fence.

The US has finally confirmed what the UK and Europe have long regarded as clear: that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against the rebels and that President Obama's famous "red line" has been crossed. 

"Following a deliberative review our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year," said the White House's statement. 

"Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information. The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete."

After this statement, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes announced that the US would provide "further support" to the opposition's Supreme Military Council, including "military support". The language was deliberately opaque. Was Rhodes referring to non-lethal equipment such as vehicles, communications and body armour, or was he referring to military arms? "I can't detail what type of support yet" was his response. But judging by reports from the US media, the answer is the latter. The New York Times states that the administration has decided to supply the rebels with "small arms and ammunition", describing it as "lethal aid". It's also notable that while playing down reports that a no-fly zone is set to be established on the Jordanian border, Rhodes said nothing to rule out this option. 

All of which means that it is now decision time for David Cameron. After succeeding in lifting the EU arms embargo, Cameron insisted at PMQs this week that the government "had not made a decision to supply the Syrian opposition with weapons", adding that it was providing "assistance, advice and technical help". When Ed Miliband pressed him on what "safeguards" were in place should lethal equipment be supplied, he again declared: "we are not supplying the opposition with weapons. We are supplying them with technical assistance and non-lethal equipment." 

But the US decision to supply "lethal aid" means that the Prime Minister can no longer remain on the fence. On the Today programme this morning, Conservative MP John Baron, one of many sceptics on the Tory benches, declared that "we don't have to follow the US". The question for Cameron, who has all but confirmed that the Commons will be given a vote on arming the rebels, is whether we will. 

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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.