Syria: Arms Sans Frontières
It is no exaggeration to say that the Syrian conflict could spill over a region extending from the Straits of Hormuz to the Mediterranean
If it was already a gargantuan task to get all sides conducting and feeding the war in Syria around a table in August, three events in the last three days have just made that task much more difficult but no less urgent. The first and by far the most important was Hassan Nasrallah's speech on Saturday in which the leader of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah personally committed his movement to the survival of the Assad regime. Unlike any other development in the grinding two-year war of attrition between Syria's Sunni majority and its Alawite-dominated government and military, Nasrallah's statement has the power to upset the fragile balance between Sunnis, Shias and Christians in Lebanon that has lasted since the end of its own 15-year civil war. For the first time in its history, Hezbollah shed the fig leaf that its sole purpose was to defend Lebanon against Israel, and publicly committed itself to waging a sectarian war against fellow Arabs.
Nasrallah's statement should have made everyone involved in trying to staunch the bloodletting in Syria pause for thought, because it means that Iran's involvement in the planned talks sponsored by the US and Russia becomes even more important. While John Kerry, the American secretary of state, showed flexibility on the notion that Bashar al-Assad's removal need not be a precondition of the talks, but a possible outcome of them (the rebels have so far been unbending on this point), the US and Russia are still far apart on whether Iran should have a seat at the table.
The second development has just occurred in Brussels. Undeterred by the increasing gravity of the regional dimensions of the crisis, Britain and France pushed ahead with their plan to arm the rebels. In a debate in which they found themselves to be a heavily armed minority of two against 25, they forced a decision to let the EU arms embargo lapse. That was rapidly followed by the third development, Russia's announcement that it would go ahead with deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria – although the decision was more in response to Israel than to the EU. Moscow had been waiting on an Israeli commitment not to carry out further air raids over Syria – which never came. Russia's decision is calamitous. If it is true that arming the rebels with shoulder-mounted Stingers is beset by problems about end users, that is even more true for fast radar-guided missiles that could be used by Assad against any target, airborne or not.
As things stand – with a civil war in Iraq that has claimed 300 lives in the last two weeks alone; with rising sectarian tension in Lebanon; with Hezbollah's overt involvement; with the prospect of more Israeli air strikes to come; with the re-militarisation of the Golan Heights and the warning that Austria has given that it might pull its troops out of the UN observer force there – it is no exaggeration to say that the Syrian conflict could spill over a region extending from the Straits of Hormuz to the Mediterranean.
It is against this rapidly deteriorating regional backdrop that one must judge the wisdom of the British and French decision to arm the rebels. William Hague, the foreign secretary, gave three main reasons: it would give Syrians under daily bombardment from Assad the ability to fight back; it would empower the moderates, by which he means pro-western rebel units, and stop them defecting to the better-armed jihadi groups; and it would put more pressure on all sides to attend the planned peace conference. All three are assumptions, and precariously untested ones at that.
Russia, Britain and France are hardly paving the way towards a ceasefire and the sort of sustained multilateral diplomatic effort that will be needed over months to forge a solution. More weapons will more likely entrench warlordism, prompt Assad's backers to increase their military support, and give substance to his claim to be fighting a foreign-backed Islamist plot. More weapons feed the myth that this conflict has a military solution. It is one that both sides in Syria still nurture.