Comment: Why the Middle East just doesn’t trust Britain over Syria
By Samuel Lawes
Sitting in a cafe in upmarket Istanbul, I ask a young Syrian man who has agreed to speak to me the thousand-dollar question. "Should British troops be sent to Syria?"
He sides with neither Assad nor the rebels. He says he wants an end to the conflict. But his father is a member of the Syrian Army and he shows me stomach-churning videos of rebel atrocities. That considered, his answer is all the more interesting. "It's an important question," he sighs. "Let me light a cigarette."
The civil war looks very different through Syrian eyes. When it started two years ago, with "kids" emulating the Arab Spring as "they watched it on TV", the protests seemed optimistic and peaceful. Then bullets began to be fired and with the first deaths came escalation. People started to fight not for ideology, but because one side or the other had killed someone close to them.
Britain's instincts from the start have been pro-rebels. William Hague regularly criticises Assad and has already sent non-lethal aid to the Free Army. It isn't surprising: Assad's government has a terrible civil rights record and is hostile to foreign investment. A new, more open-for-business Syria would be good for Britain.
But there is a problem. While Britain, France and the US mull sending troops, the invasion of Syria has already started. "At the start, the Free Army was amazing," my interviewee tells me. But then Islamic fighters came in droves from Iraq, Afghanistan, even the UK. The call of jihad brought a wave of extremists to the conflict which has completely changed its dynamics.
Now, even al-Qaida is there. Many "good" rebels, horrified, have left. Others – notably Abu Basir – have been murdered by this invasion of Islamic hardliners. "Now who's fighting in Syria?" he asks me, lighting another cigarette. "Not Syrians."
Where does this leave Britain? In the US, Barack Obama has certainly lived up to his nickname thus far – his role as the Quiet American is frustrating interventionists. It's a sagacious policy – the dozens of people I have talked to here all say the same thing. As one Turk put it, "anyone but America." It transpires that 'America' generally means Britain, too.
Distrust of Britain and America is so strong here that almost every Turk I speak to says, unprompted, that they doubt the veracity of reports about Assad using chemical weapons. As one lady told me: "In Iraq, the Americans claimed there were chemical weapons. There weren't. I think this is the same thing."
Worryingly, though, Hague doesn't see it that way. After a spate of alleged chemical attacks from Assad's forces, both the UK and the US have upped their rhetoric and there are suggestions of anti-Assad bombing raids.
But British bombs – or boots – on Syrian soil would be hugely unpopular in Turkey and inevitably the wider Islamic world as well. Yet even if Britain did risk sending troops, the fact remains that the Free Army is now riddled with precisely the sort of extremists that we are culturally at war with ourselves.
Which brings me back to my thousand-dollar question. The Syrian, cigarette in hand, replies that Britain wouldn't know who to fight. "Before you support someone, you must know who you are supporting. You must support the 'good' Free Army." He sounds more exasperated than plaintive. "Now, there is no 'good' Free Army."
Hague needs to tread very, very lightly around the idea of using force. This doesn't stop the tragic fact that a bloody civil war is continuing to escalate in Syria. And while it seems that direct intervention should probably be ruled out, we are no closer to finding a solution.
"In the end," he interrupts my train of thought, cigarette smoke shattering as he gestures emphatically, "we just want peace."
Samuel Lawes is a freelance journalist living in Istanbul. You can read his blog here.
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