By James Blitz and Elizabeth Rigby
Senior parliamentarians and government officials in Britain believe it is highly unlikely that the UK will transfer arms to moderate Syrian rebels at some future date because they believe David Cameron has lost the political support needed to make such a move.
For many months, Britain’s prime minister has been the most forward-leaning of western leaders in arguing that the moderate rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime may soon need arms from the west, partly to tilt the battlefield in their favour.
Last week, Mr Cameron’s position received strong support from the Obama administration in the US, which finally announced that it would transfer arms to the rebels. However, any attempt by the UK to support such a move is now so firmly opposed by Mr Cameron’s own Conservative MPs that he would be unlikely to win a vote in the House of Commons, leading politicians have told the FT.
Last month, the UK helped to lift an EU embargo that prohibited the shipment of arms to either side in the Syrian civil war.
In repeated interviews since then, Mr Cameron has said that the lifting of the arms embargo does not mean the UK has yet taken a decision to ship arms.
However, Mr Cameron has been forced to concede that he would hold a vote in the Commons ahead of any decision to transfer arms, giving all MPs the right to decide for themselves whether arms should be transferred.
Senior Conservatives say there is little support for such a move within the party, where many MPS believe it would reawaken fears about the way the UK got embroiled in the deeply unpopular Iraq and Afghan wars.
“There is a fear that Cameron would get dragged into another Afghanistan situation where the UK is engaged without any end in sight,” said one Tory MP. “There is also a sense that we cannot waste finite resources on possibly un-winnable wars.”
Politicians also have mixed feelings about the outcome of the 2011 Libyan conflict, which saw the toppling of Muammer Gaddafi and has often been described as a foreign policy success for Mr Cameron.
“People have woken up to the fact that Libya is now mired in instability and a huge amount of guns and material from the Gaddafi regime have flowed into other parts of North Africa,” said one Conservative MP.
There have been strong indications, as well, in recent weeks that leading figures in Britain’s military and security establishment are opposed to such a move, fearing it could embroil the UK in the Syrian conflict with possible “blowback” in the form of jihadist terrorism.
Opposition to the arming of the rebels has also come from a range of figures including Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, a former head of the British Army and the number two bishop in the Church of England.
Mr Cameron’s support for arming the rebels may have been undermined by the length of time it took President Obama to finally agree to make such a move, according to some MPs.
Another factor that does not help Mr Cameron is his uncertain position at the head of the Conservatives – some MPs are thought to have become disaffected with his leadership. “He might be tempted to take a risk and insist that this is the ‘right thing to do’ in the way that Tony Blair did over Iraq,” said one MP supporting the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. “But he does not have as much political capital to stake on a difficult foreign policy position as Blair did in 2003.”