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Cameron: No "moral equivalence" between the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army

By Harry Phibbs
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Screen shot 2013-06-16 at 12.09.23The Prime Minister's interview with Dermot Murnaghan was broadcast this morning on Sky News.

The section on Syria was a bit tortuous as David Cameron clearly believes that arming the Free Syrian Army would be the right thing to do but is constrained from directly saying so.

He was asked about whether arming the rebels was necessary to put pressure on President Assad to stand down:

"Well in terms of what the UK has done, we’ve worked with European partners to lift the arms embargo. We have made no decision to arm the rebels and I recognise that would be a big and important decision and we said very clearly that we haven’t made that decision. But the point of lifting the arms embargo was really twofold.

"Once was it felt to me as if there was almost a moral equivalence Europe was saying, between President Assad who you know, is now using chemical weapons to poison and kill his people, more equivalence  between him and the Syrian opposition who we have actually after all recognised as legitimate spokespeople on behalf of the Syrian people.

"So it was right to lift the arms embargo off them for that case but I think also right to send a very clear message to Assad that he shouldn’t think he can just win this conflict in a military way. That he should feel pressure. That he should make sure that the regime is effectively at the negotiating table as well."

Mr Cameron stressed that supporting the Syrian Free Army meant helping those "elements of the Syrian opposition who want to see a free democratic pluralistic Syria that respects the rights of minorities including Christians."

He added:

"If we don’t work with those elements of the Syrian opposition then we can’t be surprised if the only elements of the Syrian opposition that are getting that are actually making any progress in Syria are the ones that we don’t approve of....President Assad is now guilty of the most appalling crimes against his people. 90,000 people dead and some of them through the use of appalling chemical weapons."

Would Parliament have a vote to authorise arms to the rebels? It would have "a say." Did that mean a vote? 

I supported having a vote on the Iraq war. As Prime Minister I made sure there was a vote on the action we took in Libya, I think Parliament should have a say about these things. I can’t really go further than that in expressing our views.

Mr Cameron added that he was

"..very proud of the fact that we helped the Libyan people get rid of a brutal dictator who was hell bent on murdering people in Benghazi. Is Libya today in a difficult position where they’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure they have control of their country and they don’t give succour to extremists? Of course that is absolutely the case and one of the things we’ll be doing at the G8 and the Libyan Prime Minister will be coming to the G8 is having conversation about what we can do to help a government that I do believe wants a democratic, successful, prosperous Libya but needs help in building the institutions of the state. "

Will Mr Cameron persuade his critics by making the moral case? Doesn't he need to persuade them that involvement is in our national interest? That case can also be made but it is more complicated. He has the disadvantage that most of his Party disagree with him, and public opinion is against him. However he is also helped by clearly believing that the cause he is pushing for is right.

The Prime Minister talked about our police being "relatively honest" compared to other countries. Was this a gaffe? Not really. It's a fair assessment.

Margaret Thatcher used to be impatient of summit meetings that were just waffle. Lots of effort on wording that everyone can agree to, but doesn't mean anything. She used to push on points of substance - like the vulgar matter of securing us an EU rebate that has been worth £75 billion since 1984. Mr Cameron indicated a similar frustration:

It’s my fourth G8, many G20s and more European Councils than is altogether healthy. What you can have is endless communiqués that just go on forever and you wonder whatever really happens to them.

He was pushing for some "very specific" matters to be agreed in Nothern Ireland on trade and tax transparency. We shall see...


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