Will increased UK aid prolong Syria’s agony?
Foreign Secretary William Hague painted an apocalyptic picture of an intractable conflict and a deepening humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, on the eve of the second anniversary of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad.
Mr Hague described a 30-fold increase in the exodus of refugees from Syria in the space of the past ten months; 40,000 fleeing each week… inflating Lebanon’s population by 10 per cent.
Another 10,000 dead since he last addressed the House of Commons in early January.
“This is a desperate situation of increasingly extreme humanitarian suffering,” he said.
And against all this: not a glimmer of hope; just diplomatic deadlock, with no sign that the regime intends to enter into negotiations — despite what Mr Hague branded the “insincere” statements from President Assad to do so.
So haunted by the spectre of Iraq, wary of involvment in a regional conflict far more complex than the war in Libya, and having resisted any involvement in Syria for the past two years, Mr Hague declared today that “we cannot look the other way.”
“The international community cannot stand still in the face of this reality,” the foreign secretary said.
“Our policy has to move towards more active efforts to prevent loss of life in Syria and this means stepping up our support to the opposition…”
But his announcement that Britain is now to supply armoured cars and body armour to Syrian rebel forces will alarm many that this coalition government has stepped onto a slippery slope. Other MPs who later questioned Mr Hague expressed the fear that Britain will be drawn inexorably into another long and bloody proxy war.
But there’s another cogent argument that it’s western nations’ failure to actually arm the rebels that’s dragging out this conflict.
Syrian commentator Rime Allaf says: “Body armour and armoured cars aren’t going to stop the Scuds,” she told me. The US and the UK are simply delaying the inevitable as the problem itself gets bigger. The conflict now is being “managed” and prolonged. There has been no real effort to end it.”
Perhaps it’s with half a nod to that possibility that Mr Hague was careful to state today “our readiness to develop [our policy] further if the bloodshed continues.” He reiterated this, later in his statement: “There may well have to be further steps,” he said.
The foreign secretary was, I’m told, “at the vanguard” of efforts to amend and relax the EU arms embargo on Syria, which was codified into EU law last week. “There are no easy answers,” a Foreign Office spokesman said. “There is no diplomatic end in sight. This is equipment that will help save lives.”
As he answered MPs’ questions, the Foreign Secretary said — amost in passing — that the longer the conflict in Syria dragged on, the more likely it was that we’d see everything we feared come true.
The question is whether what the UK’s committed to today will shorten the Syrian civil war and save more lives or indirectly prolong it and cause more to flee — or die. Therein lies the rub; but today Britain sat a little less firmly on the fence.
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