Tuesday, May 28, 2013

EU Minister: "We thought these were democratic protests that would topple Assad very quickly. In fact, Mr Assad has substantial internal support.”

"... To start with, there actually is no single “western” view on Syria. As the bitter debate on whether to lift the EU arms embargo reveals, European countries are deeply divided. France and Britain want to be able to supply weapons to the rebels. Germany remains very sceptical....
Ingram Pinn illustration
©There are also divisions within countries. In the US, John Kerry, the new secretary of state, is an activist who wants to arm the rebels. President Barack Obama remains opposed. On both sides of the Atlantic, the intelligence and security establishments tend to take a more cautious line than the politicians and diplomats.In recent months, and despite the mounting death toll, the debate has swung in the direction of the non-interventionists. That is partly because the view of the nature of the conflict has subtly changed. As one EU minister puts it: “We thought we were dealing with democratic protests that would topple Bashar al-Assad very quickly. In fact, it’s a civil war, and Mr Assad has substantial internal support.” What is more, while there is genuine horror at the actions of the Syrian regime, there is also deep wariness of the strength of jihadists in the opposition. “The longer this thing goes on,” says one senior British official, “the harder it is to pick sides.”...  
Yet faith in the west’s ability to pick democratic winners among rebel forces has been weakened by the continuing deterioration of the situation in Libya. Although Libya has been chalked up as a successful western intervention, the aftermath has not been pretty. Large parts of the country are lawless. And in the cities, says one western official, “the jihadists are holding a gun to the head of the democrats”. The pro-interventionists counter that a failure to mount a humanitarian intervention in Syria would stoke the anti-western sentiment that fuels terrorism. But counter-terrorism officials are more cynical, arguing that any western intervention in Syria, whatever the motive, is liable to encourage terrorist “blowback” into our own societies. This growing fear of the rise of violent Islamism across the Middle East means the divisions between the Russian and US positions are now less stark. The high point of western indignation probably came in February 2012, when Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, called Russia’s position on Syria “despicable”. Even now, US and EU officials find plenty to dislike about Moscow’s support for the Assad regime, ascribing it to paranoia about western intentions or to the Kremlin’s desire to keep a naval base in the region. Yet behind the scenes, there is also recognition that Russian warnings about jihadism have merit. “The Russians kept telling us we were naive,” says one western minister, “and maybe we were.” It was Russia’s failure to veto a UN resolution on Libya that opened the door to western military intervention against Colonel Muammer Gaddafi. The Russians have now made clear that they will block any similar resolutions over Syria. But, given growing western doubts about intervention, that Russian roadblock at the UN may actually suit the US and the EU.
There is a third reason for western inaction on Syria: Iran. Anxiety about its progress towards a nuclear bomb is rising once again...."

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