The fake sign language interpreter at Nelson’s Mandela’s memorial service wasn’t the only person indulging in meaningless gestures last week. While the interpreter did what amounted to a four-hour version of the Macarena, British Prime Minister David Cameron decided to send equally confusing and worthless signals himself, on Syria.
The decision by both the United Kingdom and the United States to “suspend” assistance to a moderate Syrian rebel force, in the face of rising Islamist influence, was a bitter blow to the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army. It underscores their, and indeed the West’s, increasingly marginal role in Syria’s fate.
The FSA and SNC need Western backing to maintain a semblance of credibility and to stop fighters from joining Al-Qaeda-backed groups and other extremist Islamist groups. The West needs the moderate opposition to be effective. The nonlethal provided aid didn’t amount to much, but the symbolism of its suspension will convince everyone from President Bashar Assad to rebel fighters on the ground that an already muddled Western strategy toward Syria is in total disarray.
It also sends a clear signal to those fighting in Syria that the opposition movement that the West helped create cannot rely on the West for even token support. Recall that Cameron successfully overturned the European Union arms embargo on Syria last May in a move intended to “send a clear message to Assad,” but has failed to send as much as a pea shooter to the FSA. Small wonder the extremists, along with Iran and Russia, are in the ascendant.
The aid suspension indicates that the West believes the moderates in the Syrian opposition cannot hold the ring in Syria any longer. While the British Foreign Office insists the move is temporary, it was unable to say when the support would resume.
The events that led to the decision appear to be pretty straightforward: The takeover of Free Syrian Army bases in northern Syria, including the headquarters of the Syrian Military Council, by fighters from the Islamic Front, which recently broke with the FSA.
The Islamic Front is a union of six major Islamist rebel groups, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia. Only one of the front’s groups appears to be linked to Al-Qaeda, but all of them want to establish an Islamic state based on Shariah law.
While the rebels probably won’t miss supplies of body armor, communications equipment and U.S. armored vehicles, the symbolism of the decision is that the moderates are being sidelined, as what passes for Western strategy in Syria switches to keeping the jihadists out rather than deposing Assad.
Along with the estimated 110,000 killed during the Syrian conflict, and the 2 million refugees scattered around the region, the alarming rise and success of Islamist groups is the most startling consequence of the West’s failure to stand up to Assad. When this conflict started almost three years ago, coordinated Western support might well have toppled the Syrian president and preserved Syria’s sectarian harmony. But the West’s halfhearted support for the moderate Syrian opposition created a vacuum that the likes of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria willingly filled. Now rebels and noncombatants alike have fallen headlong into a sectarian conflict, embracing the politics of hate as a means of survival.
The British government insists, not for the first time, that the Geneva II conference – now scheduled for January 22, 2014 – will provide the blueprint to end the war and remove Assad from power. This claim would be laughable were it not for the mounting death toll in Syria
The conflict in Syria is not just a civil war. It has become a regional battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As much as Russia and Iran, who have backed Assad with guns and money, need to be behind any peace deal that comes out of Geneva, it is increasingly clear that Saudi Arabia, which along with Qatar bankrolls the rebels, must back it too.
Iran is already a major player in Iraq. The last thing Saudi Arabia wants is for Tehran to end up expanding its regional influence via Syria. This scenario looks increasingly likely for Riyadh, against the backdrop of an apparent thaw between the West and Iran, evidenced by last month’s tentative nuclear deal in Geneva.
The SNC’s representative in the U.K., Walid Safur, said the coalition is committed to Geneva II. He added, however, that its attendance remains conditional on a guarantee that Assad will not be a part of a transitional government that may be created by the conference. “If that changes in the coming weeks we may change our mind and not attend,” Safur told me recently.
But in reality, whether the SNC attends or not is irrelevant. As in other Middle East conflicts, a deal that does not have the backing of those wielding the guns cannot deliver peace. And as events have shown, the Islamic Front, the Nusra Front, and others are the people who count on the ground, not the SNC or the FSA.
“We’re keeping with the same consistent approach,” a Foreign Office official insisted to me last week. “We’re now focused on Geneva II where that approach will continue.”
Unfortunately, it’s a consistent approach that has so far failed to deliver either an end to the war or an end to Assad rule. While the U.K. has pursued its consistent approach, Assad has unleashed chemical weapons on his people on at least five occasions according to the United Nations; rebel fighters summarily execute people; and tens of thousands of refugees are suffering another bitter winter in makeshift tents in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.
I asked the Foreign Office official how many more Syrians the British government expected to die or become homeless before its consistent approach either paid off or was abandoned. He declined to answer.
This really has become the diplomacy of the deaf.
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in London.