x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

US reversal on arms for Syria is too little, too late

After so much inaction, the world's safe and prosperous countries have a duty now to help the Syrian refugees.

After full, detailed and protracted internal discussions, the US government has in its wisdom decided that the time has now come to begin providing modern infantry weapons to some of the groups fighting to overthrow Bashar Al Assad.

There is a strong whiff of "too little, too late" about the newfound resolution of the US president, Barack Obama.

While Washington has been mulling the evidence of chemical-weapon use by the regime, and laboriously parsing the phrase "red line", the tide of battle has turned. Mr Al Assad's resilient armed forces have never lacked for ordnance, much of it supplied by Russia. Now bolstered by fighters from their Lebanese ally Hizbollah, the regime's forces are advancing on fronts where a few months ago they seemed to be in retreat.

Having claimed the pivotal town of Qusayr, or more precisely its rubble, the army is now preparing to re-take Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and a key gateway to Turkey. A year ago, before major fighting there, Aleppo had 2.5 million people; it is impossible to know how many remain.

Being forced out of Aleppo would be a damaging blow to the rebels logistically, strategically and psychologically. A statement that the US is now ready to send some weapons - no timetable has been made known - is no counterweight. And hints that the US may now be considering imposing a a no-fly zone offer even less succour.

Still, the regime is far from crushing all resistance, and the new weaponry should help rebel fighters. It will not, however, be any good to the refugees who have poured across Syria's borders to Jordan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Lebanon. The UN has counted more than 1.6 million such refugees - not including "internally displaced persons" within Syria, most of them made homeless by the fighting.

While diplomats and senior military officers continue to ponder weapons and no-fly-zones and political conferences, the world must also spare a thought for these desperate refugees. Many of them now have have no homes and no livelihoods to which they can return.

After so much inaction, the world's safe and prosperous countries - not least Russia and China, which have so relentlessly blocked UN action - have a duty now to help the Syrian refugees, not only by sending supplies to existing camps but also by speeeding up their ponderous refugee processes. Germany has agreed to accept 5,000 of the refugees; other countries are still thinking about it.

No matter who controls Aleppo, or even Damascus, 1.6 million people need new homes.