In Syria, the West is Too Late the Hero
by Jacob Campbell
When the Syrian Support Group, the fundraising wing of the Free Syrian Army, was set up in Washington DC, I joined it to volunteer my services. I did so because I was frustrated at the reluctance of Western governments to arm Syria’s freedom fighters against the tyrant, Bashar al-Assad, who was and is waging a protracted war against the Syrian people.
But now, at long last, Britain and France are pushing the EU to lift its embargo on selling weapons to the Syrian rebels – and I’m still frustrated. Infuriated, even.
Why? Because, yet again, the West is too late the hero.
I joined the Syrian Support Group at a time when the Free Syrian Army was a largely secular, pro-democratic organisation. When the FSA went the way of the Syrian National Council – taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies in December 2012 – I quit the SSG and washed my hands of it.
The FSA had turned from would-be liberators into oppressors-in-waiting. Our inaction had created a monster; the very same monster that had frightened us into inaction in the first place – but real.
For two years the West sat on its hands whilst the Gulf states – principally Saudi Arabia and Qatar – busied themselves pumping cash and munitions into Islamist brigades fighting under the banner of the FSA. And as the military strength of these semi-autonomous militias burgeoned, so did their influence within the FSA, and their prestige in the eyes of a people desperate for someone – anyone – to fight their corner. After all, the West would not come to their aid, and the non-Islamist forces for the most part lacked the means.
Yes, the West has been supplying the Syrian rebels with “non-lethal equipment,” including mobile telephones and water purifiers. But a Nokia never brought down a helicopter gunship. And to the limited extent that Western intelligence agencies have been involved in the channelling of weapons to Syria’s armed opposition, they have been doing so through – oy vey! – the Muslim Brotherhood. The schmucks.
I can understand the initial reluctance to arm an organisation as disparate and fractured as the FSA; it was difficult to distinguish our friends from our enemies through the thick fog of war, and even harder to predict in whose favour we would be tipping the balance at Assad’s expense. Better the devil you know, and all that.
But what I cannot understand – what torments me most in all of this – is why the change of heart comes now, when we do know the devil we didn’t; the one born of our inaction. Just look at what that devil, the Muslim Brotherhood, is doing in Egypt at this very moment: transforming it further with every passing day into a second Iran. Is that the fate we wanted for Syria?
Assad must go, however, and that means arming the rebels. I still believe that. But our dithering has ensured that whatever regime replaces him is unlikely to be much of an improvement. And that’s what’s so depressing.
Jacob Campbell is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy. He is @JCampbellUKIP on Twitter.