Amid what the guidebooks call the ‘stylish and opulent’ surroundings of the Albergo hotel in Beirut, a western diplomat was briefing journalists. The room was all Persian rugs and wing-backed chairs. Waiters hovered. The official was his government’s main conduit to the Syrian rebels. I asked him what percentage of the rebels western countries could support: what percentage were not jihadis, not committing human rights abuses, looting or kidnapping — and were militarily effective?
There was a silence. Finally, he said: ‘Thirty per cent.’ It was a devastating admission. Then he paused and said he had been considering only the first three criteria. Adding in military effectiveness, you would have to say the West could support only 10 per cent.
Western diplomats are now scrambling to ensure that 10 per cent has at least the appearance of running the show. One official denied that Communiqué No. 1 represented an end to western illusions. ‘Any attempt to impose an authoritarian Islamist system on Syria by force will not lead to peace,’ he said. ‘Quite the reverse. And it will be rejected by the vast majority of Syrians.’
But parts of northern Syria are already an Islamic emirate in the making. All of the opposition-held areas are contested by shifting alliances of competing rebel groups, mostly Islamist in character. There are 1,200 armed groups, according to one estimate. Who is in charge varies not just from town to town, but from one street corner to the next. It is ‘Somalia on the Mediterranean’.