Russia and Iran are providing weapons and ammunition to Syria’s President Assad, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar deliver arms through Turkey to his opponents. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has just announced that the US is increasing its non-lethal assistance to the rebels by a further $60m. Britain is asking the EU to lift its embargo on arms sales to the opposition.
None of this seems designed to end a conflict that, for a moment, seemed to be heading hesitantly towards negotiation. Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, offered last month to discuss a settlement without demanding Assad’s resignation. Assad did not grasp the olive branch, but he did make a proposal of his own in an interview with Hala Jaber in the Sunday Times: “We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms.”
The militants are no more likely to surrender their weapons, their only means of self-defence, than Assad is to leave office. However, the gap between them was narrowing sufficiently for deft diplomacy to bridge it. Did the powers who have interfered in Syria from the beginning of the uprising in March 2011 get together and demand that their respective clients sit at a negotiating table and hash things out with words rather than bullets? Well, no.
When Assad said that “Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades”, he was not far off the mark. A country that, with France, imposed and modified the borders it drew across Ottoman Syria under the Sykes-Picot agreement carries historic baggage. A country that has done nothing since June 1967 to oppose Israel’s occupation and annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights has a way to go to prove its bona fides to a sceptical Syrian audience. And a country that, from the rebellion’s outset, predicted and sought the imminent downfall of the Damascus regime may find it hard to play the role of honest broker.
The person who is attempting to be an honest broker, the United Nations mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, has no power. All sides in the Syrian war are aware of his impotence, and they ignore his mission knowing that their backers don’t back him. Those with power over Syria’s fate – the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Qatar, to name only the most prominent cooks brewing the bloody Syrian stew – are so partisan that they disdain compromise in favour of an immediate if elusive victory for their respective Syrian factions.
Rather than the combatants’ benefactors, 24 million Syrians are victims of the escalating arms deliveries to all sides. They face a prolonged war whose casualties will dwarf the estimated 70,000 lives lost to date; more houses destroyed, more refugees; the ruination of their once prosperous economic life; and the shredding of a social fabric that held Syria together for centuries. The US, Russia and the rest seem to say, as secretary of state Madeleine Albright once did about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children due to international sanctions, that “we think the price is worth it.” It always is, when someone else pays. Must Syria be destroyed – to recall an American major’s observation of the Vietnamese provincial capital of Ben Tre in 1968 – in order to save it? Is that what the Syrian people want?
In the interview, Assad said: “You know the crime is not only about the victim and the criminal, but also the accomplice providing support, whether it is moral or ideological support.” Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, declared: “This will go down as one of the most delusional interviews that any national leader has given in modern times.” Is it delusional, or should Assad’s observation be universalised to apply to his own backers, who implicitly approve his army’s actions in the war, as much as to those of the armed opposition? The rebels’ own hands – as in any war – are not without blemish. The victims of lethal and non-lethal aid to government and rebels alike are the Syrian people.
Rather than lift the US-European arms embargo on lethal aid, as Britain proposes, why not ask the Russians and Iranians to join it? There is a precedent: the international embargo on arms sales to Israel and its Arab enemies during the war of 1948, when east-west relations were no worse than they are now. As bloody as the 1948 war was, it would have been far worse if the Russians, Americans, French and British had poured in their vast arsenals to Israelis and Arabs alike.
This month marks the second anniversary of Syria’s civil war. If the politicians of east and west go on as they are, it will not be the last.
Charles Glass is the author of Tribes with Flags, a travel narrative on Greater Syria, which is being reissued by Harper Collins. He was ABC News chief Middle East correspondent from 1983 to 1993.