WARNING: Syria is the new Afghanistan. By that I mean - regardless of that civil war’s outcome – we can expect returning Syrian jihadists to cause the next wave of terror in Europe and beyond.
By way of a down payment, the anti-Assad jihadists murdered a Catholic priest last week – another step in the ethnic cleansing of the ancient Christian communities of Syria and Iraq. The Vatican has confirmed that Father François Murad was executed on June 23 after militants affiliated with the al-Nusrah Front (al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise) overran his monastery in Gassanieh.
Far from understanding what is going on in Syria, the British and French governments are bent on repeating the same mistakes the Americans made during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan: arming the jihad while undermining the regime the jihadists are fighting.
Last month, we saw William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, embark upon what is perhaps the worst foreign diplomatic disaster committed to by a Conservative administration since the abortive invasion of Egypt in 1956. An over-confident Mr Hague, bizarrely with the French socialists in tow, up-ended the EU’s embargo on supplying arms to participants in the Syrian conflict – a civil war that has cost 100,000 lives.
Consider the result of this daft posturing. Hague claims there is no intention of actually supplying heavy weapons or anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels, lest they fall into the hands of the jihadists. Lifting the embargo “technically” is intended merely to send a diplomatic signal to President Assad that he has to negotiate. But Assad has no reason to negotiate if Hague is not going to give the rebels the means to shoot down his helicopters. Besides, the lifting of the EU arms embargo gifted Russia the perfect excuse to supply Assad with every weapon he needs. Which leaves the jihadists able to claim they are the only real opponents of the regime.
No wonder, then, that hundreds of young Muslims in Europe are flocking to Syria to join the jihad. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, at King’s College London, has tracked at least 600 European jihadists who have gone to Syria, from 14 countries, including 134 from Britain.
Even these numbers may be on the conservative side. According to the authoritative French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, quoting senior government sources, French intelligence estimates the number of European jihadists fighting in Syria at between 1,500 and 2,000.
The influx of jihadists into Syria is not the result of individual revolutionary tourism. The current global head of al Qaeda, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, has prioritised the Syrian front: “If you want the Caliphate to return, then deploy to the Levant. If you want to establish Shariah-based governance, then deploy to the Levant. If you want to liberate Palestine, then deploy to the Levant. If you want to extirpate the corrupt rulers, then deploy to the Levant…If you want to resist America, then deploy to the Levant.”
And it’s easy to get to Syria. You hop on a low-cost airline to Turkey for under £50, no visa required. Then take a bus to the Syrian border, where the local jihadists give you a gun.
The worrying thing is that more potential jihadists have gone to Syria from the UK than any other European country. Some are paying the price. In May, Ali Al Manasfi, aged 22, from West London, died in a clash with Syrian government troops, in Idlib province.
While Britain seems oblivious to these ominous developments, other countries are becoming alarmed. In April, Belgian police carried out 46 early-morning raids on radical Islamist groups, in an attempt to stop the recruitment of volunteers to fight in Syria. Last month, Spanish police arrested eight people in North African enclave of Ceuta, on suspicion of recruiting fighters for Syria.
The problem in democratic Europe is that you can’t stop someone leaving the country merely on suspicion they are going to join a foreign war. Peter Friedrich, the German interior minister, wants the EU to adopt a two-year re-entry ban for suspected jihadists coming from Syria, but it is difficult to see how you could stop European citizens coming home. Around 80 Britons are thought to have returned from Syria already.
The export of jihadist violence from Syria may have begun already. Terrorist attacks in Xinjiang in Western China have killed 35 people in recent weeks. Beijing claims to have captured local separatist fighters who have been active in Syria. These reports could be Beijing trying to pin the blame for domestic unrest on foreigners, but there is previous form: China’s Islamic separatists were also active in the Chechen conflict.
None of the above should be read as support for the Assad regime. But the UK seems to have learned little from its disastrous involvement in Iraq. Outside of Assad’s Baath Party and its allies, there are no civil institutions available to replace the regime with a functioning, pro-Western democracy. Two years ago, the West might have used the threat of military intervention to broker an accommodation with the regime, but that was never on the cards after Iraq. The jihadists, therefore, are gaining in political as well as military strength, dividing the opposition forces.
As a result, and with the help of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, the Assad regime now seems to be winning. Assad has also been quick to take comfort from the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt – the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood plays a major role in the rebel National Coalition. This has prompted a call from Saudi Arabia for the EU to arm the Syrian rebels “immediately” – the embargo ends officially next month.
But the EU as an institution won’t deliver such weapons – Britain will. David Cameron has already told parliament he reserves the right to arm the rebels without holding a vote, probably because 80 Tory MPs have already indicated they would vote no.
Ask yourself: where will such weapons end up being used? Damascus? Or Heathrow? Or even Glasgow?