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Aaron Ellis: Why we mustn't arm the Syrian opposition

Ellis AaronAaron Ellis writes about foreign affairs for the Tory Reform Group and others. You can follow him on Twitter.

If Britain sends weapons to the Syrian opposition, we will take on risks that far outweigh whatever interest we have in seeing them triumph. The conflict is horrific, but it simply isn’t important enough to us for us to take on these risks. Britain should help topple brutal regimes only where it is in our interests to help and our help ought to be proportionate to those interests. We must do all we can to soften the humanitarian crisis, but otherwise, Syria should be kept at arm’s length.

This ‘realist’ prescription will seem coldblooded to many readers, even inhumane. How can someone be so selfishly detached in the face of such appalling crimes committed by the Assad regime; when tens-of-thousands of people are already dead? Something must be done and arming the rebels is something, therefore we must do it. And according to the Prime Minister, spreading our values is the same thing as pursuing our interests, thus it would be a perfectly proportional policy.

Whenever great tragedies occur in places like Libya or Syria, there are calls for Western intervention, and the debate over whether or not we should intervene is typically reduced to a matter of interests vs. values. Some, like Mr. Cameron, try to end the argument by claiming the two are synonymous. It is much more complicated, of course. We don’t have a mutually reinforcing set of values. ‘Spreading’ one can undermine others and governments must often make trade-offs between them. If Britain arms the Syrian opposition in order to ‘stop atrocities’ or ‘advance freedom’, then we will be forced to make trade-offs elsewhere – trade-offs that could undermine our moral credibility just as surely as Bosnia-esque inaction.

For example, as our involvement with the opposition deepens, so the more implicit responsibility we shall incur for their actions. The atrocities that they’ve committed are not on the same scale as those of the regime, but they occur nonetheless. If Britain furnishes the rebels with weapons, we would be held partially responsible for whatever crimes they perpetrated, yet we wouldn’t possess the power to change their behaviour. We would effectively take on all the burdens of an alliance with the anti-Assad coalition without enjoying any of the benefits. (And if it’s true that the rebels have used sarin gas, the West’s rhetoric about chemical weapons will look a little ridiculous).

We would also be seen as accomplices to the unscrupulous policies of our regional allies, just as the United States is seen as responsible for assisting Pakistan’s malign interference in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Pakistanis acted as middlemen between Washington and the mujahideen, channelling American arms and cash to the extremist factions they themselves favoured. As Britain would have to channel its support to the opposition via the Qataris, Saudis, and Turks, we would incur implicit responsibility for their more cynical approach.

Such moral trade-offs are only acceptable if there are crucial interests at stake, yet arming the Syrian opposition would involve us in a proxy war with Moscow, jeopardising things considerably more important to us. There are only two routes out of Afghanistan and one of them depends on the Russians’ goodwill. Accepting this fact and all that it implies for our foreign policy is not Appeasement – it’s logistics. Western efforts to isolate Iran and stop its nuclear programme would also be jeopardised by a proxy war with the Kremlin. Many would surely agree that an Iranian atom bomb is a lot more dangerous to the world than an Iranian puppet in Damascus…?

If I toured a Syrian refugee camp, as the Prime Minister has done, I would feel as angry as he did and demand that we do something – anything – to end the civil war. Yet its complexity demands the ‘hardheaded’ approach that he often promises. We must do all we can to soften the humanitarian crisis, but the simple fact is that Syria isn’t important enough to Britain for us to take on the risks of deeper involvement.


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