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Sending weapons into Syria: Why Britain can’t follow the US example

The Syrian Rebels: proudly sponsored by the White House.

The Syrian Rebels: proudly sponsored by the White House.

Today it was announced that the US is to arm the Syrian opposition, after the White House confirmed that chemical weapons had been used by Assad’s forces earlier this year.  This action crossed President Obama’s ‘red line’, and has caused the US to play its hand.

In a statement the US said it would send direct military assistance to rebel factions, claiming that as many as 150 people have died in Syria from multiple small-scale attacks that involved chemical weapons.

The administration has been cagy about what US weapons would be sent. While they are mostly expected to be small arms and ammunition, officials have suggested that the supply could include anti-tank missiles.

However, despite the intention to help the rebels in Syria to win a war that they are increasingly losing, it is a decision that is likely to only perpetuate suffering, not bring it to an end.  And it is a decision that could have far-reaching consequences.

The question here in the UK is on such consequences. And, most particularly, whether the British government follow in America’s footsteps.

Last week, in the face of strident domestic opposition from both backbenches, Prime Minister David Cameron promised that there would be a vote in Parliament before the UK sent any weapons to the conflict.

The PM is holding his cards to his chest to some degree. His government has been careful never to commit to a decision to arm Syrian rebel fightersIt maintains that the recent push for the EU to relax its arms embargo was simply to preserve the option of greater intervention.

Perhaps the US decision this week will give Mr Cameron a chance to breath. It alleviates to some extent the pressure from rebel figures for the UK to act. But he isn’t let off the hook entirely. There are mounting concerns that the US’s actions constitute a first step to greater Western intervention in the Syrian quagmire. The ghosts of Iraq and Afghanistan are very much present.

Perpetuating an existing problem: Explosive weapons in populated areas

The other debate is centred around whether the supply of arms will be of any humanitarian benefit anyway.

The supply of weapons from both the US and UK seems likely to include explosive weapons. This is certainly what opposition fighters in Syria have been requesting. These weapons could involve any or all of an assortment of rockets, mortars, RPGs, artillery systems, and anti-tank missiles.

Rebel groups are already known to have already received some of these weapons from Saudi Arabia in recent months. They were bought from Croatia and smuggled into Syria through Jordan.  And the impact of such supply of explosive arms has yet to be properly understood.

Much of the worst violence in Syria has been carried out with explosive weapons, in attacks rightly condemned by the British government.

The UN’s latest report from Syria stated baldly that both sides had committed war crimes, many of which were connected to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In the first two years of the conflict (March 2011-2013), AOAV recorded 90% of the reported casualties of explosive weapons to be civilians. The same would likely be the case with any weapons supplied by the US or the UK.

And if the UK or US does supply explosive weapons the long term impact would also be profound. Beyond even the daily deaths at the hands of these bombs and shells, explosive weapons are notable for destroying homes and damaging vital infrastructure. Explosive weapons also litter civilian areas with unexploded ordnance which has the potential to cause future casualties for years, maybe decades, to come.

Living up to new commitments

There are other reasons why the UK should not send weapons into Syria.

On 3 June 2013 the UK became one of the first countries to sign up to a new Arms Trade Treaty, thus signalling its opposition to the irresponsible trade in arms.

On signing the treaty, Alistair Burt called it a “fresh starting point for international cooperation,” and called on states to go further than the minimum standards of regulation required by the Treaty.”

One of the core aims of this landmark agreement is to stop destabilising arms flows into conflicts, and to prevent their use to violate human rights and international law. It is hard to see how any potential transfer of arms to Syria would be in keeping either with the spirit or the rules of the Arms Trade Treaty.

Opponents to a potential arms transfer have repeatedly raised the spectre of weapons reaching the hands of ‘terrorists.’ The UK and US have spoken of arming only the ‘moderate’ groups. There is not only no guarantee that such moderates will be able to ensure civilian protection when they use these weapons, but many have rightly pointed out that it would be impossible to ensure that weapons supplied to these groups stay with them. This has already been seen with the Croatian weapons.

A lasting nasty legacy

There is another inconvenient truth that has to be faced. Weapons can have a long lifespan.

They can remain a threat to civilians not just in Syria but in other countries, where fears of a spill-over of violence have been rapidly growing anyway. Fears have been raised that if the explosive weapons supplied to Syrian rebels are diverted they could be smuggled out of the country or used to make improvised explosive devices. The same warning was repeatedly issued in 2011 concerning Libya’s loose stockpiles of weapons, and is now being realised.

In short, it would be virtually impossible to guarantee that any weapons supplied to Syria’s rebels would not be used to commit further violations and abuses, both in Syria and abroad. The UK can’t shy away from the commitments they made at the very first opportunity.

The explosive truth

Ultimately sending more weapons, particularly explosive ones, will only increase civilian suffering. To base the desire to arm rebels on humanitarian grounds is a political lie.  And a nasty one at that.

The patterns of violence in Syria by every actor is leading to increasing use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas. The inevitable result is that of civilian casualties.  Young children missing arms and legs.  Mothers and fathers obliterated by shelling.  Families decimated in their homes.

The UK government cannot be a part of perpetuating the cycle of explosive violence in Syria.

Please send this article to your MP – their voice could make all the difference in any upcoming debate or vote in Parliament.