Even indirect military help for rebels risks ‘all-out civil war’, say senior ex-UK diplomats

By Fiona O’Cleirigh | 12 July 2012Former ambassadors warn West against military action in Syria

Two former UK ambassadors to countries in the Middle East are warning the West against direct military intervention in Syria.

Sir Harold Walker, Britain’s ambassador to Iraq at the outset of the first Gulf War in 1991, told Exaro that even indirect action “only increases the danger of all-out civil war.”

And his former colleague, Sir Richard Dalton, the British ambassador to Iran between 2002 and 2006, agreed, saying: “I have not seen anybody come up with a military solution that would make the situation better, rather than assist in prolonging the violence.”

Their concern comes as the United States publicly takes an increasingly hard line towards the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and his government. One American diplomat told Exaro that the US Department of Defense has drawn up secret plans to bring about ‘regime change’ in Syria.

According to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 17,000 people have been killed in the country’s 16-month-old unrest.

The former ambassadors echo the restraint of the compromise agreement reached by world powers in Geneva just over a week ago. It approved a peace plan that called for the creation of a transitional government in Syria. The peace plan was brokered by Kofi Annan, special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League.

Walker said that Syria was at great risk of civil war because of its large minorities, including the Alawites, Christians and Kurds. He also fears that conflict would spread to surrounding states, such as Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.

Dalton told Exaro that a United Nations resolution for military action was inconceivable because it “would be vetoed by China and Russia or one of the two.”

He was sceptical of the alternative route to gaining military legitimacy by a resolution of the UN’s general assembly, because of a lack of support among member states “given the fact that major countries such as Iran, which is allied with Syria, would take grave exception, and I am not at all sure that Egypt would go along with a new Iraq-type situation in Syria.”

The former ambassadors also question the benefits of indirect military intervention, including the arming of rebels and paying salaries to members of the Free Syrian Army to encourage more defections from Assad’s state forces.

Dalton said: “I think that it would come under the category of, likely not to solve the problem, but to perpetuate the civil war.”

He feared “continued disorder for quite a long period, with the distinct possibility that Syria will break up.”

However, said Walker: “The international doctrine of responsibility to protect, although it is not as yet international law, does impose a heavy burden on the outside world to do what they can to ease the humanitarian situation.”

He thought that there were dangers for the US whether Assad’s regime remains or falls. “If Assad toughs it out and is clearly restored to complete control, that is bad for US interests when they look at the interests of their allies – Israel basically – or when they look at their hostility to Iran.”

However, “if Assad is overthrown, that is possibly even worse” because “you do not know what kind of government you would get, but it would be Sunni.”

Many fear, he said, that a Sunni government would be hostile to minority groups currently siding with Assad, such as the Alawites, Christians and Kurds. Assad is himself Alawite.

Specialists in security or in the Middle East told Exaro that direct military intervention is unlikely.

Many see Russia as having a crucial role in determining the future of Syria.

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