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Syria aid reveals UK fears over Islamist rebels

Foreign Secretary William Hague pledges more support for Syrian rebels, picture taken July 2012. Photo: Reuters/Ali Jarekji

William Hague’s decision to offer non-lethal assistance to Syria’s rebel fighters reveals more about the Foreign Secretary’s fears than it does his hopes for a post-Assad world.

And quite a bit more about Britain’s frustrations too.

Let’s start with the frustrations. For much of the course of this blood-stained crisis, Britain placed a great deal of misguided faith in the Syrian National Council to form a cross between a western-friendly steering committee for the revolution and a government-in-waiting.

Instead there have been months of factional in-fighting, sectarian division, and personal rivalry, coupled with a geographic exile that renders the SNC an unappealing side-show.

Members of the Free Syrian Army, picture taken July 2012. Credit: Reuters/Abdo

Meanwhile, in Homs, then Damascus and now Aleppo, it is the poorly equipped but highly motivated rebel fighters who have taken the ground, literally, from under the feet of Assad’s forces.

Many of them still puzzle over lack of meaningful assistance from the west.

"Does Britain hate Muslims?’’ one exasperated commander asked me in Aleppo a couple of weeks ago. And the answer is no, but there are some that have Britain very worried.

The fear, which William Hague is explicit in admitting today, is that radical jihadist groups might begin to make the running in Syria, turning this from a war (in western terms) of liberation, into a struggle for the creation of an Islamist state.

Sunni Muslim Salafists burn a giant poster during a protest against the Syrian and Russian governments in Sidon. Credit: Reuters/Ali Hashisho

So for Britain it is time to get close to the Free Syrian Army. To get to know them a better. To start dealing direct.

There are difficulties. The FSA is hardly a unified command. And there are risks. The past few weeks have taught us that crimes against humanity are not committed by Assad loyalists uniquely.

Still, the Foreign Office is sending an ambassador level representative to meet “political elements’’ of the FSA. Now he’ll come bearing gifts.

U.N. monitoring team in Syria, during a visit with his team to one of Damascus' suburbs. Credit: Reuters/SANA/Handout

Not, apparently, the gifts they really want: the weaponry and ammunition to bring down helicopters and destroy tanks.

And there is a much bigger strategic danger - that those radical Islamist groups are able to source effective armaments from friends in the Arab world.

But let's assume America and her Nato partners are, as they say, providing only logistical and intelligence support. William Hague simultaneously believes Assad is "doomed’’ but insists Britain “is not taking sides in a civil war.’’

That’s true to the extent that the aid is a long way short of swinging the battle decisively. But it is an attempt to get on-side with the winning side.

That at least is the hope.

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