Why Britain should play an active part in arming Syrian rebels


12:23 pm - May 28th 2013

by Dan McCurry    


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If the UK government is considering arming Syrian rebels, it should also consider embedding British personnel with rebel forces.

This arms supply method was developed by Fitzroy MacLean in his dealings with the Partisans in WW2. It is accounted for in MacLean’s famous book Eastern Approaches.

The reason for embedding personnel, with our equipment, is partly that we can then be sure who is using our arms, but also in order that we have a relationship and an influence, both now and in post-conflict Syria.

In WW2 the Balkans were just as bloody as Syria is right now, if not more. Whole villages were executed as Nazi punishments. Engaging the Partisans, MacLean would often dissuade them from responding in kind. “A modern country would not do that kind of thing.”

He was reminding them that after the war they would be expected to join the international community, as a nation, not a barbarous tribe. MacLean probably averted a considerable number of massacres and atrocities, but he was only able to do so because he was present.

British influence, of this kind, would be felt by the Syrian rebels, if we were arming and amongst them.

Most of the reports concerning the character of the rebels comes from Turkish and American intelligence in Syria. The problem with this intelligence is not that it is wrong, but that it paints a picture of the rebels unaffected by a relationship with us. They long ago gave up on the west as allies. We have little influence, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar has considerable clout.

My point in describing the MacLean system is to draw attention to the humanitarian benefits, which cannot be replicate by sitting on the sidelines and saying “Nothing to do with us. We’re not responsible.”

Do we achieve innocence through inaction? If a man is drowning and we stand by and watch, are we not responsible for his death, due to our lack of action? If a doctor watches a man die, knowing that the medicine in his bag which could save him, has that doctor done nothing wrong, by his inaction, of has he killed the man by his failure to act?

If the rebels demonstrate themselves as barbarous, while under the influence of the Saudis, are we not at least partly responsible, by our refusal to enter and engage?

By embedding our personnel, we can pick and choose which militia can use our technology.

We can encourage talks and cooperation between factions, acting as honest broker. We can influence a peaceful outcome and avert further tragedy. That is the type of player we should be.

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This is a guest post. Dan McCurry blogs here.
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Reader comments


1. George Hallam

“This arms supply method was developed by Fitzroy MacLean in his dealings with the Partisans in WW2. It is accounted for in MacLean’s famous book Eastern Approaches. ”

That worked well didn’t it.

“The reason for embedding personnel, with our equipment, is partly that we can then be sure who is using our arms, but also in order that we have a relationship and an influence, both now and in post-conflict Syria.”

Not in the case of Yugoslavia it wasn’t.

For goodness sake read the exchange of page 281.

Maclean pointed out to Churchill that “Tito and the other leaders of the movement were openly and avowedly Communist and that the system which they would establish would inevitably be on Soviet lines and, in all probability, strongly oriented towards the Soviet Union.”

Churchill’s response was to ask Maclean if he intended to live in Yugoslavia. When Maclean said that he wasn’t Churchill said that neither was he.

“So long, he [Churchill]said, as the whole of Western civilization was threatened by the Nazi menace, we could not afford to let our attention be diverted from the immediate issue by considerations of long-term policy … . Politics must be a secondary consideration.”

If politics was a secondary consideration to Churchill that where did humanitarian considerations come? Third? Fourth? or even lower down the list of priorities?

If you understood the source you quoted then you would either advocate military aid to the most military effective groups (i.e. fundamentalist, anti-western, extremists) or you would give up the idea of meddling in the Middle East altogether.

I can think of a few counter arguments off the top of my head:

(1) Afganistan arming against the Russians
(2) Iraq arming Saddam Hussein
(3) Ivory Coast via Israel
(4) Peru and Colombia rebels (aka Drug Dealers)
(5) Lebanon
(6) Sierra Leone
(7) Sudan
(8) Cambodia

“If the UK government is considering arming Syrian rebels, it should also consider embedding British personnel with rebel forces”.

Oh yeah, what a great idea. It goes well with the rather simplistic view of Syria and the Middle East generally.

Warmonger.

British influence, of this kind, would be felt by the Syrian rebels, if we were arming and amongst them.

And who is to lead this grouping of advisors – Andy McNab? It all sounds a little far frtched given how sectarian the fighting has now become. Hezbollah have sent their fighters to Syria and this is causing Suni v Shia fighting in Lebanon too. Are we to go to war against Hezbollah as well?
It might just be that Assad’s forces are going to win this fight and so it might be better if we didn’t prolong the civil war.

@ George Hallam,

Following WW2, Tito founded the non-aligned movement; a group of countries that chose not to take part in the cold war alliances. So yes it did work very well.

They run out of chemical weapons already?

Following WW2, Tito founded the non-aligned movement; a group of countries that chose not to take part in the cold war alliances.

True, but that wasn’t because he’d become fond of the western liberalism through fighting alongside the British. It was because the Yugoslavs had made their own revolution and were damned if they were going to let Stalin run it.

I suspect that the main reason that Churchill backed Tito’s Partisans in Yugoslavia was because they offered the best chance of uniting people from the various nationalities to fight the German occupation and their local quislings; the Chetniks, being Serb nationalists, could not have done this.

I have wondered if Churchill also felt that, as was likely, Tito would be the beneficiary of this policy and be in a commanding position at the end of the war, this didn’t matter too much, because, as an independently-minded bloke, he’d be likely to fall out with Stalin, despite the similarity of their politics.

As for Syria today, whilst Assad heads a nasty, repressive regime, he can in no way be considered a threat to British interests in the way that Hitler was, I do not understand why the British government is pushing policies aimed at inflaming the situation (such as insisting that Assad must go), rather than trying to cool the situation before it really blows out of control.

It is legitimate to ask whether, in the light of the appalling mess represented by post-Ba’athist Iraq (not least with Islamist hot-heads running amuck), it is wise to propose a policy that could lead to the course of events in Syria following those in Iraq after 2003. From yesterday’s EU Foreign Minister’s decision to arm the opposition, it seems that Europe’s governments are willing to take that risk, and Mr McCurry may even have his wish fulfilled.

@Dr Paul,

I’m not comparing Assad to Hitler, but I am raising an eyebrow to your comparison of Syria in flames with Iraq contained under Saddam. Intervention caused the upheaval in Iraq.
As for Syria having no strategic role; they sponsor terrorism including suicide bombings, they arm Hezbollah and were responsible much of the chaos in Lebanon. Assad is the number one bad guy in this region.
By the way, I wasn’t in favour of the Libya war, because I didn’t see the strategic importance. Gaddafi had renounced violence so was no longer an issue.

10. Shatterface

Why don’t we just declare war on the Russians and cut out the middle man?

“We can encourage talks and cooperation between factions, acting as honest broker. We can influence a peaceful outcome and avert further tragedy. That is the type of player we should be.”

This is what the UN is for. But the UN has almost since inception been hamstrung by the imperialist mindset of the UNSC permanent members, most prominently the US and its deluded little British accomplice. This article is just another example of the kind of forked-tongue Western liberal interventionism that has plagued international relations since the end of the Cold War forced the war industry to find new ways to justify itself.

12. George Hallam

@ 5. McCurry
“Following WW2, Tito founded the non-aligned movement; a group of countries that chose not to take part in the cold war alliances. So yes it did work very well.”

This fails on two levels logically and empirically.
As regards logic, the name of this particular fallacy is ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’.

Empirically, there is a double problem:

1. Tito’s involvement with the non-aligned movement was quite a bit post hoc from Mclean’s escapades with the partisans. The phrase “non-aligned movement” was first used by Krishna Menon in 1953 and it did not exist as an organisation until 1961. In the immediate post-war years the Tito was very closely with the Soviets until the falling out of 1948.

2. The non-aligned movement was founded by people that the FO loathed and detested: Nasser, Sukarno, Nkrumah and, of course, Krishna Menon.

You are probably too young to remember, but the UK was involved in at four year undeclared war with Indonesia 1962–1966: the Indonesian–Malaysian Confrontation.

So the non-aligned movement was not much use to HMG.

I vote Dan McCurry is given the first rusty Kalishnikov and thrown in to the front line, along with David Cameron and Francois Hollande and they stay there until peace reigns in Syria. Be seeing you Dan!

Follow the money. With the prospect of arms sales to the Free Syrian Army, it’s worth keeping an eye on the share price of BAE Systems, the armament manufacturers and one of Britain’s largest manufacturing companies:
http://shares.telegraph.co.uk/quote/?epic=BA.

15. George Hallam

@ 8. Dr Paul

“I have wondered if Churchill also felt that, as was likely, Tito would be the beneficiary of this policy and be in a commanding position at the end of the war, this didn’t matter too much, because, as an independently-minded bloke, he’d be likely to fall out with Stalin, despite the similarity of their politics.”

You’re letting your imagination run away with you.

Given the early date of the decision to support Tito (well before D-day) there was no way Churchill could have anticipated the course of events years into in the post-war period.

All the documentary evidence shows that

a) the idea of supporting the communist partisans in Yugoslavia well arose before anybody in London, let alone Churchill, had any ideas who Tito was. Indeed, there was a theory that there was no such person and the name was just a propaganda device.

b) The decision was made on military grounds in the teeth of ‘political’ opposition from the FO. “..the decision to send liaison officers and military stores to the partisans was one which the Foreign Office manifestly disliked; and it is common knowledge that this decision was obtained only after the military authorities (then in Cairo) had demonstrated, from information which could not be denied or ignored, that the partisan war effort was overwhelmingly greater than that of the chetniks” Basil Davidson http://www.znaci.net/00001/3_1_10.htm

In July 1943 Churchill wrote, of a signals intelligence digest that “it gave a full account of the marvellous resistance by the followers of Tito and the powerful cold-blooded manoeuvres of Milhailovi? in Serbia.”.

Mclean wasn’t dispatched to Yugoslavia until September. In his own words his mission was “simply to find out who was killing the most Germans and suggest means by which we could help them to kill more.” (page 287)[

Maclean’s discussion with Churchill that I quoted occurred after the Tehran Conference (i.e. November 1943) at which Churchill had already told Stalin of his decision to support Tito.

As a student at uni, I went on a camping holiday in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, in 1958. The campsite was for students – and some uni teachers.

Their English was surprisingly good and I had many engaging and very informative conversations. One thing that struck me immediately was how quickly each of the students I spoke with identified which of the federal republics of Yugoslovia they came from – Serb, Croate Monenegro etc – which seemed far more important to them than being Yugoslav.

The exception was a blond girl who (shrewdly) said she came from Dalmatia, an ancient Roman province along the coast stretching across several of the federal republics. Even in 1958, there were prescient doubts as to whether the federation could survive the death of Tito. As an indications of the entrenched ethnic divisions, many official signs were spelt out in Cyrillic as well as Roman lettering.

I don’t think churchill cared about post WW2. He was only interested in winning the war. The reason this conversation turned to non-alignment is due to my argument that we would do well to back the rebels in order to have influence both during the conflict and later.

@Boyo. Thanks for the vote!

@Bob B, I’m not saying that Tito was a good leader after the war. Could a communist ever run a country well? The communist system might have been designed to cover up the problems rather than our system which exposes them to be remedied.

Wars have a habit of getting out of control. Intervening in mainland Europe to stop the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 seemed morally compelling. By the end of the ensuing conflict in August 1945, it is estimated that 55 million people had been killed.

Sending military advisors to Vietnam in the early 1960s seemed such a good idea at the time. Try McNamar’s on the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964: The Fog of War (on YouTube and DVD)

“Should the UK arm the Syrian rebels? William Hague thinks so, but it turns out neither his MPs nor the public are convinced. YouGov polling earlier this month found on 17 per cent of voters supported sending arms, and 56 per cent opposed the measure. ”
http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/isabel-hardman/2013/05/william-hague-tries-to-reassure-on-naive-syria-arms-plan/

Guardian headline 28 May 2013: “Downing Street refuses to say if MPs will vote on arming Syrian rebels”

So much for democracy.

Re George Hallam’s comment, I did say that I have wondered if Churchill thought about Tito and Stalin falling out were the former to obtain power, rather than asserted it as a fact. The reason I have pondered over this is because Churchill had recognised the nationalist aspects of Stalinism well before Tito came to his attention, and one thing that most people recognise about nationalists is that they tend to fall out with nationalists of other countries.

Re Dan McMurray’s reply, I don’t deny that Assad is an nasty character and has been up to all sorts of mischief, not least in Lebanon. His dad had pretty good form too, and we can lay the Lockerbie affair at his door in many respects (it was diplomatic convenience and not evidence that saw the blame shifted to Libya).

Nonetheless, one would think that realpolitik would encourage British and other European governments not to inflame a difficult situation, especially when hard-line Islamists (the work of whom we have all recently seen in horrifying relief just down the road in Woolwich) are making the running. Demanding, as Hague has been doing, that Assad goes merely makes any compromise solution that much harder, and encourages both sides to dig in.

One might think that Western governments, seeing the horrific mess in post-Ba’athist Iraq, would consider that Assad (with all his faults) remaining in power to be a safer bet than Syria (and Lebanon) collapsing into a sectarian bloodbath with militant Islamists running amuck.

Whatever happens in Syria the entire country is going to end up a pile of rubble !

Let’s remind ourselves about Afghanistan, Iraq and whats silently happening in Libya.

These countries should be left to sort out their own mess and we should ask ourselves why did these countries always rule within with an iron fist !

21. So Much For Subtlety

19. Dr Paul

I did say that I have wondered if Churchill thought about Tito and Stalin falling out were the former to obtain power, rather than asserted it as a fact.

Churchill went to Moscow and saved what could be saved. He recognised Soviet control over Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria in exchange for keeping Yugoslavia neutral and keeping Greece pro-British. Stalin signed on – and kept to his end of the bargain oddly enough.

The reason I have pondered over this is because Churchill had recognised the nationalist aspects of Stalinism well before Tito came to his attention

Stalin and Stalinism were not remotely nationalistic.

Nonetheless, one would think that realpolitik would encourage British and other European governments not to inflame a difficult situation, especially when hard-line Islamists (the work of whom we have all recently seen in horrifying relief just down the road in Woolwich) are making the running.

Surely real politik would tell you nothing of the sort. Rather it would go with Spengler’s line that we should be encouraging them to murder each other. Civil war in Syria has no downside for us at all. Especially if we stay out of it. If we are going to give arms, Spengler has argued we should give arms to the weaker side. Until they are the stronger side. The more the situation is inflamed, the less downside there is for us.

One might think that Western governments, seeing the horrific mess in post-Ba’athist Iraq, would consider that Assad (with all his faults) remaining in power to be a safer bet than Syria (and Lebanon) collapsing into a sectarian bloodbath with militant Islamists running amuck.

On the contrary, the invasion of Iraq was stupid, the occupation was incompetently managed, but the bloodbath worked out perfectly for us. Arabs, especially Sunni Arabs, do not mind Islamists murdering people far away in places like Afghanistan. They did object to Islamists murdering Sunnis in Jordan. The excesses of Iraq have shown the Arab world what the Islamists are like. And they do not like it. Islamism has been on the wane ever since Fallujah.

There is a good case that we should really rub the lesson in by letting the Islamists run amok in Syria. This is going to kill Hezbollah. They can only be weakened. The moderate Sunnis of Lebanon will come over to our side. We can strengthen the Christians of Lebanon.

As long as we make sure no one wins. Then our extremists will go there to die. Which is a lot better than them waiting to be shot in the streets of Woolwich. They are not our friends. None of them are our friends. We have nothing to gain from peace – except more terrorism. So let them murder each other to their heart’s content. Why should we try to stop them?

22. Richard Carey

I like this part:

“We can encourage talks and cooperation between factions, acting as honest broker.”

Allowing any form of extremism to take a firm hold un Syria will be a disaster for Western Civilisation.
THERE ARE NO SECULAR FSA UNITS.Long before Al Nusra arrived from Iraq,at the time FSA was in control of Homs,they initiated a mass displacement of over 60,000 Christians in the city.So much for secularism.If Britain arms the rebels I sinsirely hope that they are the first to be gassed by them after Islamist hijack the rebels as they did in Iran,then Sudan then Tunisia and Egypt.
Handing the world’s third largest chemical weapon stockpile to al qaeda .Well,the need to hijack Pakistan for nukes would cease that moment.
BTW.Christians in Lebanon under Aoun SUPPORT Hezbollah.To Christians,they are the lesser evil compared to the Salafists in Tripoli and West Beirut.There are Christian majority villages in Southern Lebanon which is Shiite.No such phenomenon exists around Tripoli or North Central Lebanon which is Sunni.

@Gerald,

Hezbollah are fighting for Assad, and you worry about extremists? On whose side?


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