Can the government get its message straight on arming Syria’s rebels?

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Imagine, if you will, that you’re a Syrian rebel leader. The “good” sort, that is. No aspirations towards running an al-Qaeda caliphate. No fondness for eating the organs of vanquished Assad loyalists. Just keen for an end to 40 years of rule by one or other of the Assad clan. You’re short of weapons, however, and have spent much of the last two years meeting in hotel rooms around the Middle East trying to source extra supplies.

Then, a month ago, there finally seems like light at the end of the tunnel. A friendly Western power starts making all the right noises. They push for the EU arms embargo to be lifted. They tell their people that those who fail to act will be “stained” by the blood of the war’s innocent victims. And they say the risks of said weapons ending up in the hands of your al-Qaeda rivals are all a bit exaggerated, actually.

Then, just as you’re hoping for the call to say when to pick the weapons up, said Western power changes its mind. No weapons for you, you’re told. Too much risk of them falling to the wrong hands after all. Besides, to be frank, President Assad is now winning, and we don’t think a few extra guns would help you much anyway. Sorry for any misunderstanding.

Whether or not you support arming President Assad’s opponents, I think you’ll agree that most of Syrian rebel groups would not appreciate being led up the garden path in this way. And surely any government keen to maintain some credibility in the rebel ranks would avoid raising expectations and then dashing them in such fashion. Yet judging by the recent messages coming out of Downing Street and the Foreign Office, this seems to be exactly what HMG has done.

For those who haven’t followed it closely, the narrative runs roughly like this. Only last month, the Government seemed strongly in favour of arming the rebels. It pushed successfully for a lifting of the EU arms embargo, despite reservations from more less hawkish nations like Austria and Germany. Sponsoring more moderate rebel groups, it was argued, would  stop them being outflanked by jihadist ones, and also give Britain some valuable traction in any post-Assad Syria. Not only that, it was a powerful diplomatic lever to encourage President Assad’s participation in the Syria peace conference in Geneva, currently scheduled for early autumn.

Lest anyone had any doubts about the practicalities of such a plan, William Hague was duly dispatched onto R4’s Today programme to reassure listeners. Just as the government had managed to supply “non-lethal” equipment to the rebels without it falling into the wrong hands, so it could pull the same trick off with weapons, he argued.

“The equipment we have supplied so far is not arms, but we have no evidence that that has fallen into the wrong hands in any sense and we have been supplying it for some time, so bear that in mind,” he said.

It has since turned out, though, that certain important people have indeed harboured very strong doubts all along. Not Hague and Cameron, who by all accounts, were quite keen to be seen to be doing something, but the Government’s military advisors, who have taken an altogether more hard-headed view.

They have apparently advised Downing Street that the conflict is now so advanced in President Assad’s favour that the only thing that would tilt the balance now would be a full-on intervention with air power. Like Libya, in other words, only more robust, given the strength of President Assad’s Russian-supplied air defences. On that basis, giving the rebels a few guns or even missiles is largely pointless, and, certainly does not outweigh what is still a potential risk of such weapons going astray.

Hence the reports in both the Mail and Telegraph on Monday that Downing Street has now ruled out arming the rebels, and the remarks in today’s Telegraph from General Sir David Richards, that the government needs to clarify its “objectives” in Syria before any military action might be taken. Instead, the plan is to stick with more non-lethal aid, and hope that the peace conference in Geneva gets the two sides to come to an amenable truce (not very likely, given that Mr Assad now sees the prospect of victory in sight).

Not surprisingly, the decision has infuriated the Free Syrian Army, the main moderate rebel faction, whose commander, Salim Idriss, was livid when interviewed by my colleague Ruth Sherlock earlier this week, accusing Mr Cameron of leaving the rebels to be slaughtered.

More oddly, still, though, Mr Hague has continued to insist that no decision has actually been made yet, telling the Foreign Affairs committee on Tuesday that “any reports that we have ruled anything out are not correct,” and that all options are still on the table.

It now seems pretty clear, though, that they aren’t. Because even if the government could get the support of parliament to arm the rebels – and the Commons has demanded a vote if it ever comes to that – it would surely be unlikely to press ahead in the face of objections from the military.

So why all the rhetoric to the contrary? Why did Downing Street even allow the idea of arming the rebels to be floated in public, if the military had such grave doubts? Words count for a great deal in the Arab world, sometimes as much as deeds, but not if they aren’t followed through on.

Perhaps it was just poor communications. Others claim it was never more than a ruse to get Mr Assad to agree to come to Geneva conference. Either way, though, it risks sowing yet more distrust among the rebel groups that Britain might one day hope to count as its friends in Syria. Refusing to arm them is one thing. Stringing them along is another altogether.

Read more by Colin Freeman on Telegraph Blogs
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