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A right royal Syrian mess

January 23, 2014 at 7:42 am

In 1916 Britain and France secretly devised a plot to carve up and share out the Middle East between them. Under the authority of the Skykes-Picot Agreement it was decided that if they were to defeat the Ottoman Empire in World War I Britain would appropriate Jordan, Southern Iraq and the ports of Haifa and Acre and France South East Turkey, Northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The result of the pact shaped the Levant we see on maps today.

Almost a century later, the two Western powers have agreed to supply weapons to Syria’s rebels as the country descends further and further into civil war, a decision that will likely fracture the region even further. The news was revealed early this week following 12 hours of talks in Brussels. Of the 27 EU countries which debated whether or not to renew the Syrian arms embargo only Paris and London were opposed. As a result, each country will make individual decisions on arms supplies.

UK Foreign Minister William Hague has welcomed the outcome, stating “It was a difficult decision for some countries, but it was necessary and right to reinforce international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria.” Though he did not clarify how the supply of weapons constitutes a diplomatic solution, nor how he will determine in whose hands the weapons will end up. Now the UK and France will join Qatar who has long been providing armaments to Syria’s rebels.

The underlying argument for Hague’s decision is that the provision of arms will create a fairer battlefield in Syria and coerce Assad into reaching a settlement at the imminent Geneva Peace Conference. But for those that disagree with him not only is the smell of hypocrisy in the air – in the words of the Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, “we have not done it in any case in the past years, so I think just to come up with such a new policy is such a fundamental issue” – but an escalation of violence is inevitable.

This morning, The Independent reported that Russian S-300 anti-aircraft systems had arrived in Syria. So while back in 1916 Russia consented to Britain and France’s agreement to share out the Middle East (they were allocated Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and the Ottoman Armenian vilayets) this time they first promised, and have now delivered weapons to Assad in retaliation for London and Paris’s decision in Brussels. Israel in turn has responded by promising to destroy the systems.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah have openly declared their support for the Syrian regime. Shortly after Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah made his announcement to fight alongside Assad on Saturday, rockets were fired at a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut. Not only does this suggest that the conflict could spill over into neighbouring Lebanon but that Jabah al-Nusra (who are pitted against the regime along with the Syrian opposition) are attempting to get even with Hezbollah following their announcement. Whilst a sectarian conflict is raging within the country, it is being stoked from all angles by international players. Suddenly Hague’s desire to create a ‘level playing field’ couldn’t feel further from the truth.

Just as it seemed things could not get any worse it was revealed that U.S. Senator John McCain made a clandestine visit to Syria on Monday to meet with 18 commanders of the Free Syrian Army. Their message was “we are desperate for ammunition, we are desperate for weapons.” Yet there is no evidence that more arms for the rebels would even be able to wipe out Assad’s air offensive and determine his downfall. The result?

A right royal Syrian mess.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.