UK Politics

MPs warn against arming Syrian opposition

Syrian opposition fighter
Image caption Arming rebel fighters would be madness, many MPs believe

"How long can we go on, with people having every weapon that has ever been devised being dropped on them, whilst most of the world denies them the opportunity to defend themselves?"

The words of the Foreign Secretary William Hague in Brussels at the end of last month.

He successfully persuaded fellow European ministers that the European Union's arms embargo to Syria should not be renewed, allowing countries to send weapons to the rebels if they chose to.

But what he, and the prime minister, have failed to do, is persuade enough of their own MPs that arming elements of the opposition in Syria is a good idea.

Backpedalling

Labour and the Liberal Democrats aren't convinced either, and so ministers are now having to backpedal.

"No decision has been taken" is now the mantra.

Last week the United States said it would increase the scope and scale of military support for opposition forces in Syria after it concluded that President Assad's forces had used chemical weapons.

But President Obama appears to lack the will to embrace the idea and take ownership of it. And David Cameron lacks the support for it at home.

This whole debate has provoked plenty of soul searching for MPs across Westminster.

Soul searching about what the foreign secretary has described as "the worst human tragedy of our times".

'Mission creep'

But soul searching too about the UK's place in the world. As things stand, there are multi-storey reservations from many.

Will MPs get a say on the decision, and will it be before the decision is taken? Could arms fall into the wrong hands? Would it provoke an arms race, or even a proxy war with Russia?

What about the dangers of so-called 'mission creep,' getting involved in a limited way but being sucked into a far greater commitment? Should the UK be getting involved in another conflict in the Middle East? How ambitious a foreign policy should a small island nation realistically have?

The prime minister has said "Parliament should have a say," but for some there is outright, noisy hostility.

The Conservative MP Julian Lewis said arming the rebels would be "madness" and "suicidal".

'No appetite'

His colleague, David Davis, who was beaten by David Cameron to the Tory leadership in 2005, added that it would be "undoubtedly a mistake" and it is thought up to 100 of his colleagues agree.

"There is no appetite for it, in parliament or in the country," added the Conservative backbencher Andrew Bridgen.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, worried about weapons falling into the hands of "al Qaida-affiliated thugs".

For others, there is scepticism and plenty of questions.

The shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander suggested that ministers were "confronting the reality that the answers they have offered have failed to convince people right across the House of Commons".

Arming elements of the opposition in Syria, he added, would provoke the "near certainty that you are launching an arms race by proxy with the Russians".

The former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown added that it would be "an act of very considerable folly".

And yet, most accept that the status quo is not an option either.

'Counting the dead'

The Conservative MP Brooks Newmark is willing to stand up to those critics in his own party and beyond, and publicly make the case for a new approach.

Image caption The Syrian president has said Europe will pay a price if it supplies weapons to his opponents

Mr Newmark knows Syria, and has met President Assad.

"We have a moral obligation to protect people," he argues. "All these wars come to a negotiation, the question is how many people do you want dead between now and then. In Lebanon we waited 15 years, in Somalia we waited at least a decade, in Bosnia we waited almost a decade."

"The issue here, is we're no longer the world's policeman, we can't be," a Conservative colleague countered.

"He can't win, it's so difficult," another Tory MP told me about the prime minister's predicament.

Another reflected that the issue illustrated the need for far deeper thought about Britain's place in the world.

"Westminster doesn't help, all these extraordinary buildings that echo an earlier, imperial age," he told me, suggesting the country must re-examine what it is capable of on the international stage.

The legacy of the last 15 years hangs heavy, and it can be summed up in two words: Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We have gone through two wars, which cannot be held up as huge successes, British soldiers have died and it hasn't necessarily improved the security of the West, in terms of the terrorist threat," David Davis said.

War weariness

Plenty of MPs have picked up a war weariness from their constituents which has instilled a sceptical "hang on a minute" instinct.

And President Assad, in an interview with a German newspaper, has played directly into those doubts. Europe, he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, would "pay the price" if it delivered any weapons to the Syrian opposition.

It would, he said, spread terrorism to the continent.

For William Hague, Britain must protect the Syrian opposition from being "exterminated".

The foreign secretary is, in essence, the country's chief diplomat, and diplomats are careful with their language. But words don't get much stronger than "exterminated".

It was a reminder, if one was needed, of the gravity of the situation. The conflict in Syria, he added, was "on a trajectory to get worse".

Deciding what to do about it, and persuading others of the government's case, will be far from straightforward.