British 'wishful thinking' on Syria

The British government's policy on Syria stems from wishful thinking, Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City University London, told BBC Radio 4 listeners this morning.

The question of selectively arming some of the rebels (i.e. those deemed worthy of British support) may be more about strengthening their hand "within the spectrum of rebels" than actually helping them to defend themselves, Hollis suggested.

While the issue has generated much heat in Britain, with the cabinet reportedly divided over the principle of providing weapons, the growing complexity of the Syria crisis raises doubts about its relevance. Either way, how much difference would it really make at this stage in the conflict?

There's an audio version of Hollis's conversation with John Humphrys here, with a transcript below:

Rosemary Hollis: 
The idea that the prime minister and foreign secretary seem to have had is that there are some good guys amongst the rebels, with whom they have had a dialogue for the last two years, and there are some very bad guys amongst the rebels, the Nusra Front being the al-Qaeda-linked example ...

They would like to help the ones that they would like to prevail ultimately over Assad, and it's a losing battle because these guys are in retreat and the loss of Qusair is yet another illustration that the Assad regime feels it is getting stronger, not weaker ...

British policy stems from a wish to see him go, a kind of wishful thinking that he was on his way out, and then a reaction to the development of events on the ground and trying to rescue the one element in the mix that they think they can easily align with.

John Humphrys: But the crucial point – there is a wish to see him go. There really is no sign at all that he's going, is there?

Rosemary Hollis: The logic that he seems to be following is that "If not me at the head of Syria, then there is no Syria. It will go down with me." And the very same rebels that the British are hoping to support, including with arms – and arms of course is a source of leverage within Syria, so it's not only about protecting themselves – that sounds much less plausible than the idea that they simply want to strengthen the hand of a group within the spectrum of rebels ...

John Humphrys: The ownership of arms gives you the prestige, the power, the influence, the everything ...

Rosemary Hollis: Yes, but this same group are the ones who were saying that Assad is the problem because he is capable and determined if necessary to take the whole country down with him, and that he has been exploiting such sectarianism that there is in this mix for his own purposes, so "Better me than all the alternatives" is the line he's taking.

John Humphrys:  And what is – we can imagine what the best scenario is. It's difficult to imagine the worst endgame, isn't it. Presumably some sort of partition of Syria ...

Rosemary Hollis: You think that's the best scenario?

John Humphrys: No, no. Absolutely not. I'm asking you what is the most likely, and the worst scenario.

Rosemary Hollis: Well, I think we are looking at the landscape from the Mediterranean coast, inclusive of Lebanon and Syria, but also of Iraq to the east and beyond that, Iran. This is the battlefield, because the Iranians are involved in the mix, on the ground in Syria. So are Hezbollah from Lebanon. The Israelis are periodically involved in retaliation or in pre-empting developments. The Turks are involved – they're home to the Syrian opposition in exile. The Jordanians are involved because they are in receipt of refugees (as are of course the Turks) but also they would be the training base for any support that the westerners wanted to give to some of the rebels. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 7 June 2013