When the Coalition Government was defeated in parliament over military intervention in Syria last summer many activists probably thought that was the end of the matter. After all Prime Minister David Cameron had conceded ‘the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the Government will act accordingly.’
What many people don’t realise is the UK was interfering in the Syria war before the vote – arming and training the Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad Government. And although a US-UK military strike has been averted, the UK is continuing to support the rebels.
According to Seymour Hersh’s latest expose in the London Review of Books, from early 2012 MI6 was helping the CIA transfer weapons from Libya to the Syrian rebels. Funding for this ‘rat line’ came from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. After the September 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi (likely targeted because of its role in these arms transfers), Hersh notes that the US – and presumably Britain – ended its involvement, although the rat line continued without them.
Quoting Jordanian security sources, in March 2013 the Guardian reported that US, UK and French personnel were training Syrian rebels in Jordan in an effort to strengthen secular elements of the Syrian opposition. According to the Guardian ‘UK intelligence teams are giving the rebels logistical and other advice in some form.’ Relatively small in size, this training programme is likely run from the joint operations room in Amman staffed by the eleven countries that form the Friends of Syria group, including the US, Saudi Arabia, France and the UK, according to the Wall Street Journal. The joint operations room coordinates the training of rebels in Jordan and the supply of money and weapons to rebel groups in southern Syria. In September 2013 the New York Times reported that ‘Saudi Arabia, quietly cooperating with American and British intelligence and other Arab governments, has modestly increased deliveries of weapons to rebels fighting in southern Syria’. This cooperation with Saudi Arabia is covert, the report explained, because ‘American and British intelligence and Arab Governments… do not want their support publicly known’.
All of these operations have been conducted outside Syria. However, in 2012 lord chief justice Lord Judge inadvertently provided evidence of British personnel working on the ground in Syria itself. Presiding over the court of appeal for SAS solider Danny Nightengale, who was sentenced to military jail for firearms offences, according to the Guardian Lord Judge told the court ‘Nightingale’s life was a “remarkable story” that had taken him on dangerous missions in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya.’
The UK has been helping to arm the rebels despite a wealth of expert opinion arguing such support will lead to an escalation of the conflict. In April 2013 an official UN report of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s meeting with the Prime Minister of Qatar noted ‘the Secretary-General called for stemming the supply of arms to any side in the Syrian conflict. More arms would only mean more deaths and destruction.’ In May 2013 the Campaign Against Arms Trade argued ‘Arming rebel and opposition forces will have unforeseen long-term consequences for Syria and the region and will not assist in finding a non-military solution to this terrible situation.’ In the same monthJulien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations warned ‘western arming of rebels is ill-advised given its… encouragement of escalation and maximalism, and the inability to guarantee in whose hands weapons will end up.’ With the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn recently noting ‘the Syrian armed opposition are, more than ever, dominated by jihadi fighters’ the likelihood of the weapons falling in to the hands of the most extreme groups has only increased. For example, in March 2014, Brown Moses, a blogger who tracks weapons use in Syria, discovered that Croatian arms the CIA had helped to send to Syrian rebels, were now being used by the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq to target US-made Armoured Personnel Carriers used by government forces in Iraq.
Public opinion lines up with the experts on this issue. AYouGov poll taken a few days before the parliamentary vote found 58 per cent of respondents opposed ‘sending small arms such as hand guns to the anti-Assad troops’, with just 16 per cent in support. This opposition continued after the vote, with an ICM/Sunday Telegraph poll finding just 3 per cent of respondents thought the UK should be ‘arming Syrian anti-Government rebels.’
Although the evidence I present above is culled from news reports, these are infrequent and isolated stories: The UK media has manifestly failed to provide any in-depth coverage, raise questions or undertake serious investigation in to the UK’s role in escalating the Syrian war.
While it was undoubtedly a huge victory for anti-war and peace activism, peace activists should not be complacent about the Government parliamentary defeat on military intervention in Syria. The Government continues to arm and train the rebels in Syria, which many experts have warned will escalate the fighting, lengthen the conflict, lead to more deaths and empower the most extreme and violent groups. Peace activists need to step up and draw attention to the UK’s ongoing destructive role in Syria and pressure the Government to stop interfering and instead work to deescalate the conflict.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org and https://twitter.com/IanJSinclair.