Hold on, Dave: arming Syria's rebels could make things worse
Remember Afghanistan – 30 years after the US armed the Mujahideen, we're still fighting Taliban
AFTER a year and a half of civil war in Syria, in which nearly 100,000 have been killed or severely injured, David Cameron is urging his allies to consider actively arming the insurgents.
It was, apparently, hearing the harrowing accounts of massacre and mayhem from refugees camped along the Syrian-Jordanian border that has pushed him into urging action on the side of the rebels.
But who exactly is Cameron suggesting we send arms to, and what kind of arms?
The problem, illustrated so graphically at the Syrian exiles' summit in Doha, is that the Syrian opposition is fragmented both inside and outside the country itself. The Syrian National Council is deemed not fit to bear the brand of the principal political opposition, and it certainly carries little clout inside Syria itself.
At Doha, attempts are being made to produce a new Syrian government-in-exile – yet the latest line-up purporting to be the government-in-waiting includes not a single woman. The rebel groups are still talking in Doha, but progress seems slow.
Inside the country itself there are at least 19 different factions now fighting the regime. Some of the most active are the Salafists and affiliates of al-Qaeda in Iraq. They undoubtedly would accept any arms gift from Cameron and his allies, but they wouldn't take any notice of his political demands.
In the short-term, arming the insurgents is likely to make things worse, because it would mean the Russians giving more arms than they have been already – largely covertly – to the Assad regime. Which means the fighting will go on.
Assad's forces are currently losing vital ground, particularly in the north along the Turkish border and in the Mediterranean northwest, homeland of the Assads' Alawite minority.
The longer the fighting continues, the greater the risk of refugees from Syria - including Salafist infiltrators - spreading from the eastern Mediterranean down into the already volatile Gulf.
According to some Whitehall analysts, this regional instability is strengthening the case for direct intervention by western powers, including the US and Britain.
There is also realistic assessment that Syrian military regime's quite extensive stocks of chemical and exotic weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, the powerful pro-Iranian Shia militia based in Lebanon and Syria. In the past, Hezbollah armourers have shown great skill in improvising new weaponry, including short and medium-range rockets.
But any international intervention, however limited in scale, aim, and duration, should carry the health warning of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is very hard to discern what sort of civil and peaceable regime could be established in Damascus now – and the dread notion among diplomats is that Syria could become a kind of Somalia at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.
As Colin Powell said of Iraq, once you break a thing, you own it. The legacy of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan led by the Bush-Blair duopoly is continuing chaos and uncertainty that is set to persist in both countries.
David Cameron seems to have caught a mild dose of the Tony Blair interventionist bug. After all, his supporters argue, the intervention last year in Libya was a qualified success – though some would say in the wake of the chaos in parts of Tripoli and the murder of US Ambassador Stephens in Benghazi, it now looks more like a qualified failure.
In the 1980s the maverick Congressman Charlie Wilson was regarded as something of a hero, not least in the eyes of Hollywood, for almost single-handedly pushing for arming the Afghan Mujahideen with Stinger missiles and rockets for fighting the Russians.
The Russians left Afghanistan. But the Mujahideen kept their weapons, armed Islamists across the region, and helped found the Taliban. The message is clear: not only should western leaders be careful about what they wish for in intervention, but about who they wish to arm. It's likely to come back to haunt you.