Bill Carmichael: Arms and the Syrian rebels

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EARLIER this year when the British government announced it was sending huge shipments of aid to the Syrian rebels fighting Bashar Assad’s ruthless regime, some of us questioned whether the goods could fall into the wrong hands.

No one doubts the Syrian dictatorship is brutish and violent, and is backed by the equally vile government of Iran. In just one example in August, Assad used banned chemical weapons to murder more than 1,400 of his own civilian population.

The problem is many of the people trying to topple him are equally nasty. They, too, are Islamist nutters, only this time of the Sunni, rather than Shia, variety and are backed by the reactionary bigots that run Saudi Arabia.

The West has somehow found itself on the same side in this conflict as the sort of extremists who are happy to saw off the head of any Westerner unlucky enough to fall into their hands.

But the Foreign Office dismissed such concerns. We were reassured that Western aid would only be directed to the “moderate” jihadists of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who are slightly less extreme than the al-Qaida affiliated rebel groups.

Oh – that’s all right then.

Since then aid has poured into northern Syria – £20m from the UK taxpayer and £152m from the US. Food rations, medicine, body armour, 4x4 vehicles, communications equipment and water purification kits. Western powers are also reported to have facilitated secret arms deals to help the rebels.

But it all came to a sudden halt this week when the UK and the US announced that all shipments had been suspended. Why? Because fighters from the extremist Islamic Front had ousted the “moderates” of the FSA from their bases and warehouses and seized all the supplies.

According to reports, dozens of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, along with food and medical supplies, were looted.

In other words precisely the outcome some of us warned about more than six months ago.

And sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry is now in the hands of jihadists who are more than happy to shoot a crowded passenger jet out of the sky.

It is now 1,000 days since the Syrian crisis began and we are no nearer a peaceful solution.

And heart-breaking as it is to witness the appalling suffering of the Syrian people, we have to be clear about two things; firstly, we in the West are not to blame, and secondly our powers to persuade the two branches of Islam to be more tolerant towards each other are seriously limited.

Bottom of the class

THE report by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, was like a breath of fresh air.

Instead of taking the easy option, followed by many in the educational establishment, of blaming poor attainment on deprivation and racism, Sir Michael pointed out that poverty was no longer a reliable indicator of school failure.

Indeed, many schools in affluent parts of the Home Counties, the East of England and the East Riding were failing their pupils, he said.

He found that while pupils from many ethnic groups are improving, those from the white working class are lagging behind.

Instead he pointed the finger at low expectations of poorer children and the acceptance of bad behaviour and disruption that blights many schools. He said this attitude was “a million miles away from the sort of cultures we see in some of the high-performing Asian countries”.

Sir Michael is right. We should expect the very highest standards of both work and behaviour from pupils, regardless of their background. To accept less is nothing short of a betrayal, characterised by what George Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.