The Sunday Times: Police in rebel-held Syria ‘betrayed’ as UK cuts off funds
The Sunday Times
Louise Callaghan and
Mahmoud al-Basha, Gaziantep
August 26 2018, 12:01am
When Colonel Ali Zein joined the Free Syrian police (FSP) in Idlib, he knew his job would not be easy. In an area crawling with extremists, he was in an unarmed force funded by Britain as part of a £200m aid programme tasked with stabilising communities ravaged by war.
They aimed to be the thin blue line between civilians and chaos. Now, he says, they have been betrayed.
Local councils, teachers and police forces across opposition-held areas will lose their budgets as the UK ends most of its non-humanitarian support for its conflict, security and stabilisation fund in Syria, which has supported civil society since 2015.
Zein and other locals claim the loss of funding will allow extremists to fill the power vacuum in Idlib, a rebel-held northwestern region.
“Britain promised us that they wouldn’t abandon us,” said Zein. “But then they did.”
Several of those involved in the Syria project outside the country have lambasted Britain’s policy as “farcical”; that it lacked direction at best and was negligent at worst.
Sources involved in the programme say it was cut largely because of fears that President Bashar al-Assad would start an offensive to retake Idlib and of appearing to be indirectly supporting Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate that is powerful there.
“The decision was driven by an unwillingness to keep taking risks, and recognition that there wasn’t much point in continuing to invest money because nothing was moving,” said a source involved in implementing the fund in Syria. “But the result is, you’ll now no longer have a group of civilians able to provide security. That leaves only the armed groups.”
Critics of the funding programme say it was a gamble that did not pay off. Armed groups sought to interfere with it, jihadists tried to co-opt its successes and other extremists cut off projects from funding.
Since October 2014, the FSP project has received about £20m from the British government. Of this, the BBC’s Panorama has reported, £1,400 made it into the hands of officers linked with extremist groups. But participants say it was a success: they received requests from towns battling HTS to help impose order.
“Our numbers increased all the time because civilians everywhere are supporting us,” said Fatma Amsha, one of 176 female FSP officers. “It’s because we don’t belong to a military group. We won’t allow HTS to control us.”
Sources claim withdrawal of UK and western soft power hands an easy win to Assad. “He spent six years jihadising the opposition, and he’s done it. He’s convinced a major backer to withdraw,” said a person closely involved in affected projects. “This decision puts a political resolution further away, and abandons [the UK’s] partners of the past six years.”
The Foreign Office said: “The UK is supporting thousands of vulnerable Syrians living in the north of the country by helping children to stay in school and securing jobs. This is in addition to providing lifesaving emergency aid for millions of vulnerable people.
“As the situation on the ground in some regions has become increasingly difficult, we have reduced support for some non-humanitarian programming, but continue to deliver vital support to help those most in need and to improve security and stability in the country.”