The United Kingdom will provide armored vehicles and body armor to rebels in Syria to “help save lives,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Wednesday.
Two weeks ago, the European Union’s foreign ministers, including Hague, agreed not to provide weapons to opposition forces in Syria that seek to topple President Bashar al-Assad. Hague on Wednesday argued that “technical assistance” was “necessary, proportionate and lawful,” however, despite European arms sanctions that prohibit the export of weapons. Britain, he added, will provide millions of pounds worth of “nonlethal” civilian and military assistance, exempt from the embargo, including communication and sanitation systems.
Hague defended the government’s decision in Parliament and refused to rule out the possibility of direct engagement in the future but said: “No Western government is advocating military intervention of Western nations into the conflict in Syria.”
Western powers are reluctant to intervene in Syria’s civil war for fear of emboldening Sunni Islamists who comprise the backbone of the rebellion.
Sunni Muslims are the majority ethnic group in Syria but are governed by Shia Alawites who live mainly in the northwest of the country. Insurgents control several towns in the north as well as the oil rich eastern part of the country around the city of Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates River.
The more radical Islamist elements in the uprising have refused to submit to an opposition umbrella group that was set up last year in Qatar in an attempt to unify Assad’s opponents and garner more international support.
Moderate members of the rebel movement as well as their foreign sympathizers worry that it will be hijacked by religious fanatics who seek to establish a Sunni Muslim regime in Assad’s place.
The United States and their allies in the region, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have nevertheless provided Syria’s rebels with communications equipment and weapons but The New York Times reported in October that most of the latter ended up in the hands of the very jihadists that the West abhors.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both majority Sunni states, have sectarian and strategic interests in propping up the resistance to Assad’s secular dictatorship. He is Iran’s only Arab ally. The Gulf Cooperation Council states, led by Saudi Arabia, are engaged in a struggle for regional hegemony with Iran. Replacing Assad’s with a Sunni government would weaken the Shia axis in the Middle East and inhibit Iran’s retaliatory options in case there is an American or Israeli attack on its nuclear sites which Arab and Western nations suspect are part of a weapons program.
The United Kingdom’s and the United States’ interests in the Syrian Civil War are therefore aligned with those of their Middle Eastern allies. But Hague has been unable to explain why Britain should be directly involved in the conflict except to ameliorate the “extreme human suffering” in Syria where tens of thousands have died in the last two years and up to one million displaced.