We’ve left it too late to save Syria – this conflict can never be won

Odious, twisted, hate-filled thugs; arrogant and inadequate creeps, intoxicated by the pathetic illusion of power that comes with guns; poisoned by a perversion of religion into a contempt for all norms of civilised behaviour.

They are fighting not for freedom but for a terrifying Islamic state in which they would have the whip hand — and yet there is no dodging or fudging the matter: these are among the Syrian rebels who are hoping now to benefit from the flow of Western arms.

How is it supposed to work? How are we meant to furnish machine guns and anti-tank weapons to one set of opposition forces, without them ending up in the hands of men like the al-Qaeda-affiliated thugs who executed a child for telling a joke? The answer is that we have no means of preventing such a disaster, any more than we can control what kind of “government” the rebels — if they were successful — would form in Damascus.

What is happening in Syria is one of the greatest human and cultural catastrophes of our age. For two years the mortar rounds have been pulverising the cradle of civilisation. When I think of the happy days I have spent roaming the souk of Aleppo or the Umayyad mosque of Damascus, I am filled with grief, and I hear such awful tales of destruction that I almost dread to go back. The dead are said to number 93,000 just in the past two years. But what else could we possibly have done?

Perhaps if we had piled in with the rebels at the beginning, it might have been possible to topple Bashar al-Assad and his nightmare regime. Perhaps we could have installed some sort of pluralist and democratic government, before the Syrian opposition became contaminated with jihadis.

You only have to raise that option to see that it was never on the cards — not after Iraq. We know what happens when you topple the regime of a Ba’athist strongman. You expose the fault lines of a state that was invented, in 1916, by the British colonial office, and you unleash an unbearable cycle of sectarian violence.

No one was going for a military option in 2011, certainly not the White House. With dozens of people being murdered every day in Iraq, no one was calling for us to repeat the experiment. So we sat back, without a strategy, hoping vaguely for the best — and now we have the worst of all worlds. The Assad regime has suffered all kinds of defeat and humiliation, but it has not yet lost.

Indeed, it has just recaptured the strategically important town of Qusayr, with the help of Hizbollah. We are now on the verge of a disastrous escalation, in which Syria becomes the centre of a regional if not a global power struggle.

On one side we have the rebels, including al-Qaeda, and they seem to have support — to a greater or lesser degree — from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United States, the European Union and an assortment of extraordinarily unpleasant fundamentalist preachers who are very keen on establishing an Islamic state.

On the other side we have the Assad regime, and they have the support of Lebanon’s Hizbollah militia, Iran and Russia, which has always regarded Syria as part of the Russian sphere of influence. Both sides are now symmetrically raising the stakes. The EU has decided to lift the arms embargo that has been in place since May 2011; the Iranians are now threatening to send in 4,000 troops.

Surely to goodness it is time to recognise that no one can win this conflict, because it has become at least partly a religious conflict, between Sunni and Shia. No one can win that conflict because it is almost beyond reason. It is an argument about the protocol that surrounded the succession of the Prophet Mohammed — in the seventh century AD! One side or the other might technically “win”, and impose a government over the whole country. But unless that government has the approval of both Sunnis and Shias, we are doomed to sectarian violence and reprisals forever.

This is not the moment to send more arms. This is the moment for a total ceasefire, an end to the madness. It is time for the US, Russia, the EU, Turkey, Iran, Saudi and all the players to convene an intergovernmental conference to try to halt the carnage. We can’t use Syria as an arena for geopolitical point-scoring or muscle-flexing, and we won’t get a ceasefire by pressing weapons into the hands of maniacs.