The UK’s aid in Syira

By Rachel Auld

Syria is situated, as most of us know next to some very hostile countries and the crisis in the country has had a knock-on effect in Lebanon and Israel.  A country of fertile plains, high mountains and deserts, it is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Turks, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shias and Arab Sunnis, who make up most of the population. The demographic situation, combined with extremely tense sectarianism has worsened the conflict and is representative of the Lebanese civil war.


Political power, long held by a small mainly Alawite elite, is currently being fought for in the longest running episode of the Arab Spring.  Today they represent 12% of the Syrian population and for the past 50 years the political system has been dominated by an elite led by the Alawite Assad family. Assad’s regime is notorious for its ruthlessness, unilateralism, total disregard for human rights and it places the protection of partisan interests above all else. The government has become very isolated by Western leaning states due to its alignment with Iran and rogue-state nature.

As the dissent began, inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, people thought that things might end very quickly with success. The only thing that happened was that the government staged an all-out offensive against the people using largely Russian and Iranian aid. Despite large defections from the government elite, The conflict obviously shows no signs of ending and the humanitarian situation is dire. There is simply no-one willing to step into such a volatile place in order to help others.


That isolation showed brief signs of easing after efforts by France to bring Syria back into the international fold in 2008, but Syria’s violation of a UN ban on arming the Lebanese Hezbollah militia led to the extension of US sanctions in May 2010. Further international sanctions were imposed amid the bloody repression of protests in the descent into civil war. By December 2012 the US, Turkey, The Gulf states, France and Britain had recognised the main opposition National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution as the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people”, signalling their belief that the Assad government is beyond redemption. Whilst Assad has lost all credibility and rightly so, no government has translated this into “the responsibility to protect” where the fact that the government cannot claim legitimacy, means the problem of sovereignty is not a constraint for intervention, itself a tricky scenario – each side is becoming as bad as the other.

EU foreign ministers are struggling to reach agreements over the UK and the French call to ease the sanctions so Syria rebels can be supplied with arms.  France and the UK argue that the move would push Damascus towards a political solution, but some EU states oppose it.  Sources say talks are continuing to find some form of compromise but Austria, which opposes the move, accused the UK of intransigence.  France said there was growing evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria. Once weapons of mass destruction are clearly in use it is almost impossible to avoid intervention; it is considered to be the last straw and leave foreign states with no choice.


Britain was one of the first to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria, providing vital food, medical care, shelter and other essential support to over a hundred thousand people affected by the fighting in the country and to refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

  • Ban on export/import of arms and equipment for internal repression since May 2011
  • Non-lethal military equipment and technical assistance allowed under certain conditions since Feb 2013
  • All Syrian cargo planes banned from EU airports
  • EU states obliged to inspect Syria-bound ships or planes suspected of carrying arms
  • Assets freeze on 54 groups and 179 people responsible for or involved in repression
  • Export ban on technical monitoring equipment

In Syria, UK aid has already delivered:

  • over 600,000 food packages, which have fed over 120,000 people per month
  • more than 147,000 medical consultations
  • 20,000 relief packages, including items such as blankets and warm clothing

In neighbouring countries, British support is providing:

  • clean drinking water for more than 45,000 refugees, and food for more than 21,000 per month
  • education for around 1,000 children
  • clinical care and counselling for nearly 13,000 refugees, including those who have experienced trauma or sexual assault

The UK remains at the forefront of international efforts to support an effective response, led by the United Nations. Whilst military intervention is  very hard to achieve given the complex nature of the conflict, and the difficulty in picking a side, it seems logical for other states to follow the UK example and put in resources to humanitarian aid.


  1. Advocates of intervention point to Libya and Mali as case studies of
    how a short, sharp burst of Western military power can shatter all in
    its path, allowing friendly local allies to sweep in and fill the void.
    But Syria is not Libya, and it certainly isn’t Mali.

    Whereas Colonel Gadaffi’s forces were strung out on a thin and exposed
    coast line, the forces of President Assad are either fortified in
    strategic mountains and valleys, or worse, are engaged in street
    fighting in the major population centres. In both Mali and Libya,
    Western forces faced rag-tag militias with no air cover, established
    logistics, communications or professional officer corps, four things
    with Assad has ensured his forces enjoy.

    Syria’s armed forces, though clearly no match for the combined might of
    the West, are sufficiently well equipped and trained to require weeks
    of bombardment, with all the inevitable civilian casualties that would

    We would then have to decide whether to deploy ground forces, or simply
    let opposition groups advance freely after an air campaign. Both
    options are fraught with problems.

    For a start, who would provide the troops? To secure a country the size
    of Syria would require in excess of one hundred thousand troops. The US
    would wince at pouring troops and treasure into yet another hostile
    Muslim country. Europeans would barley be able to muster twenty
    thousand, and even then only for a very limited time. For historic
    reasons Turkish troops could not take part in any great numbers. And the
    Arab League simply doesn’t have those kinds of numbers to throw around.
    The UN is a complete non-starter as Russia and (probably) China would
    veto any resolution.

    Even if the numbers could be summoned, Western-led troops would almost
    certainly be violently opposed by the remnant of Assad’s forces and by
    anti-Western militias. Again, although the Western forces would be able
    to defeat them, they would suffer casualties and cause civilians deaths
    in the process. The presence of foreign troops would also skewer and
    warp the conflict, with moderates being labelled as puppets of
    neo-colonial powers.

    But allowing opposition groups to roll over the charred remains of the
    Assad war machine would be to unleash the gates of sectarian Hell. Syria
    is an incredibly diverse country, with Arab, Druze and Kurdish ethnic
    identities overlapping with Shia, Sunni, Alawite and Christian religious
    identities, which then feed into a regional patchwork of rural vs
    urban, coast vs hinterland, and north vs south.

    The sudden collapse of central authority, in a country awash with
    weapons would create the equivalent of an Arab Yugoslavia…on speed. No
    single group of rebels could ever hope to hold more than a small patch
    of territory. Dozens of quasi-fiefdoms would establish themselves, with
    minorities in each area being purged, further fuelling sectarian hatred
    and making reconciliation ever harder. And as inevitably happens, the
    most extremist elements would silence the moderates through fear or
    force. We’d be faced with the very real possibility of an embryonic new
    Afghanistan, on the Mediterranean, bordering Israel, Turkey and Iraq.

    Then there are the wider implications of intervention.

    The first is one of hypocrisy. Why, the question would be asked, are we
    intervening to stop a government crack-down in Syria, yet engaging in a
    conspiracy of silence while a pro-democracy movement in Bahrain is
    systemically crushed by both Bahraini and Saudi forces? The answer of
    course is that the Gulf States are on ‘our’ side, whereas Syria is not.
    The moral argument for intervention has fallen at the first hurdle.

    The second problem would be the reactions of regional powers, such as
    Iran and Russia. Both have vested interests in Syria, with or without
    Assad, and both have yet to receive guarantees that those interests
    would be protected. Consequentially, both Moscow and Tehran are fuelling
    the conflict, hoping to keep their man power.

    Our childish, one-dimensional narrative of Assad the Monster has tied
    our hands, diplomatically. It’s resulted in an inability to reach out to
    the regime and his backers and thereby establish at least a framework
    for a negotiated peace.

    Thirdly, as mentioned before, Western intervention would warp Syria’s
    transition from mafia state to whatever comes next. Like the US in 1917,
    we’d be seen as turning up after the hard work has been done, claiming
    the credit for winning, and expecting our views to be given prominence
    at whatever passed for a settlement.

    There are no good outcomes for Syria, but some are worse than others.
    My preferred option is for a palace coup. Like it or not, the only thing
    that’ll hold Syria together is the apparatus of the current regime,
    minus its most sadistic elements.

    A minister or senior military figure, if assured of the protection and
    support of the Great Powers, could arrest or kill Assad’s inner circle,
    then order a unilateral cease-fire, opening the door for talks with the
    leading rebel groups. There are signs that Assad already fears this; the
    family resides not in the Presidential Palace, but on a warship off the
    coast, such is his fear of his own government.

    It’s not perfect, but it’s better than an emotionally-driven, clumsy, expensive, bloody and open-ended intervention.

  2. Nice article, you should read ‘The Syrian Quagmire’ in this week’s Spectator. Non military aid is probably the right way for the UK to continue. The problem with military aid is that the ‘official opposition’ consists of dozens of warring factions: ‘secular and Christian groups – but also al-Qa’eda and Jabhat al-Nusra (whose leaders has pledged allegiance with al-Qa’eda and offered 10,000 troops to them’ (Spectator). Because of this split, it makes it very difficult to offer aid to these groups – especially when there is no established plan on what / who will replace Assad.

    Whilst there are dozens of wars going on across the world, I see inconsistencies from those who would argue for intervention: Why should we stick our nose into this war, yet let so many others continue?


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