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.