David Cameron apparently acquired an impressive pair of rose-tinted glasses during the Whitsun break. Describing the situation in Syria through the distorted prism of his new spectacles, similar to those worn by BBC correspondents, the prime minister told the House of Commons: “When I see the official Syrian opposition, I do not see purely a religious grouping. I see a group of people who have declared that they are in favour of democracy, human rights and a future for minorities, including Christians, in Syria. That is the fact of the matter.”
If Cameron and his foreign secretary, supported by propaganda spewed out by the BBC, can be forgiven for their initial naive assessment that the uprising against President Assad was motivated by a desire for freedom and democracy, no such tolerance can apply now. It is clear that Syria’s civil war is less about overturning an autocratic regime in the name of human rights and a whole lot more about destitution and religious strife. It is an ethnic struggle between the ruling Alawite sect, derived from Shiite Islam and supported by Iran, Hizbollah and post-war Iraq, and the Sunni majority supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It is a new manifestation of the centuries-old conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims and it has been hijacked by murderous extremists affiliated to al-Qaeda.
In the wake of western involvement in Iraq, one would have thought our governments might have learned to stand at a safe distance from such conflagrations. The Russians understand this. The last thing we should do is put arms into the hands of rebels who, if they prevail, will almost certainly massacre Alawites and Christians and who may eventually turn the weapons against those who provide them.
It’s not a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. It’s about providing help and succour to those fleeing the battlefield and it’s about resolutely refusing to pour oil on the fire. It will eventually burn itself out.