Middle East

Frustration forces Western shift on Syria

Syrian rebel fighters
Image caption Despite the US shift in policy, arming the Syrian rebels remains a thorny and divisive issue

The situation on the ground in Syria may be becoming ever more desperate but it is the West's response to the crisis that was in the spotlight here in Rome.

The new US Secretary of State John Kerry in particular was under pressure to demonstrate some shift in the US position.

For two years now there have been two timescales, two clocks running.

On the one hand there has been the pace of developments on the ground. The fighting has spread, civilian casualties have mounted and there has been an exodus of refugees to neighbouring countries, not to mention vast numbers of internally displaced people inside Syria.

On the other hand there has been the international diplomatic clock, always seemingly running slow, belatedly responding to events but never quite able to shape them.

There has been a growing realisation over recent months that this dual timescale is not working.

The Syrian opposition has become increasingly frustrated with the support, or what it sees as lack of support, that it is getting.

Arms not ruled out

It wants arms - especially sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems that it believes would even up the military balance on the ground.

Image caption Moaz al-Khatib, the Syrian opposition leader appeared underwhelmed by the US promise of aid

The Syrian opposition at one stage threatened to boycott this Rome meeting altogether if there wasn't going to be some sign of a step-change in Western policy.

Well, change there has been. The US secretary of state indicated Congress would be asked for $60m (£40m) of additional aid for the Syrian opposition.

But this was only the start. More interesting was Washington's new willingness to supply non-lethal aid - rations and medical equipment - directly to the military opposition to the Assad regime.

Other countries are making their own shifts. "Britain's policy couldn't remain static in the face of an ever-deteriorating situation," said the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague as he left the meeting.

Britain, he said, would be using any changes in the EU arms embargo on Syria to the full.

"We will send equipment that we haven't sent before," he asserted, but for now this will still not include weaponry, though he would not rule out the future supply of arms if the situation continued to deteriorate.

Moaz al-Khatib, the Syrian opposition leader, appeared underwhelmed by the US shift. He did not specifically ask for advanced weaponry but he did mention how unfair it was that Syrian government forces were still receiving arms supplies.

Patience running out

He also pushed the idea of humanitarian safe corridors; an idea that seems to have had a second coming, made more relevant perhaps by the fact that the Syrian opposition now holds more territory.

So diplomatic shift there has been but probably not yet enough to concentrate minds in Damascus.

The signals though are clear. Diplomatic patience is running out. Mr Hague spoke of "a new phase in our response to the crisis in Syria".

His next comment was interesting. He spoke of the balance of risks changing in Syria. He noted the extreme human distress in the country and the fact that the risk of wider regional instability was growing all the time.

"Our policy cannot remain static in the face of an ever-deteriorating situation," he concluded.

So the international calculus is slowly shifting. The debate on arming the Syrian opposition is not going to go away. Non-lethal military aid looks to be the next step for some governments.

The problem is that the arming debate is no simple one. More weapons may even up the contest but equally could increase the bloodshed in the short term.

How could weapons be kept out of the hands of extremist Islamist groups? And is it really true, as some have argued, that supplying weaponry will boost the influence of Western governments among groups that will have a key role in any post-Assad Syria?

Western arms supplies in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest a more complex answer.

One reason the diplomatic clock has been moving so slowly is, in fairness, that while terrible events have been taking place on the ground, there are probably no easy diplomatic answers to be found.

More on this story