Is Britain's plan to arm the rebels a dangerous miscalculation?by James Harkin / June 19, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Britain pushed for the EU to lift its embargo on providing arms to the rebels in a bid to end the conflict, which has claimed 80,000 lives” © James Harkin
Bedding down at a Syrian rebel barracks just behind the frontline in Aleppo city was never going to be easy, but it is the screaming which keeps me awake. Long choruses of anguished howls come from the other end of a narrow corridor, where the rebels I’ve eaten dinner with are setting on four unfortunates they had just detained in the street outside. Unable to sleep, I join some of the other men on the balcony outside, drinking endless pots of Arabic coffee and watching the hypnotic glow of mortar shells rising and then gently falling in the night sky.
The commander supervising the interrogation of the four men, accused of a scheme of looting and perhaps murder, tells me they’re being punched, but from the rhythm of the wailing it sounds as if they’re being pinned down and flayed. “Thieves, killers,” says one rebel. “They were pretending to be with our revolution,” sniffs another.
This is a battalion of the Free Syrian Army—the loose lattice of hundreds of tiny battalions and a few larger militias, which include the forces that Britain has decided to back in a bid to drive out the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. They are constantly changing names and personnel and, in the main, answer to no one but themselves. That this group routinely resorts to such brutal treatment of others is not surprising; almost everyone with access to a weapon in the city seems to do so, often in response to popular demand, if those people are accused of looting or working for the other side.
But western governments should think hard about whether they really understand their chosen allies before they send arms to opposition fighters, as they may do this summer. Many European countries and the United States have recognised the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the fractious and ineffectual body which claims to act as the political arm of the opposition in exile, as the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” But only Britain and France have argued that arming the rebels on the ground might now be a good idea. Britain, with France, successfully pushed for the European Union to lift its embargo on providing arms to the rebels from 31st May, in a bid to bring an end to the two-year conflict, which has claimed more than 80,000 lives, according to a UN estimate in May.