It has taken the best part of three years, but the realisation is dawning on our leaders that there is likely to be only one outcome in Syria's brutal civil war, and that is the Assad regime declaring victory. Ever since the Syrian rebels were overrun by al-Qaeda and other Islamist movements of a similar uncompromising hue, I have been warning that, rather than backing the rebels, the West's interests would be far better served by doing everything in its power to halt the violence, even if it means the detestable regime of President Bashar al-Assad surviving. In the pragmatic world of realpolitik, better the devil you know than having a vital Arab state such as Syria succumb to the rule of Islamist fanatics.
But ever since anti-government protests first erupted in Syria in the spring of 2011, Western leaders have generally eschewed this common-sense approach in favour of supporting the rebels. David Cameron and William Hague, in particular, have been vocal in their support for the Syrian opposition's cause, while at the same time demanding the president's removal. Indeed, their visceral hostility to the notion that Assad might ultimately prevail led them to back last summer's ill-considered American plan to launch air strikes against Damascus, in the belief that bombing the regime would force it to sue for peace (or at least abandon its chemical weapons).
The historic Commons vote that rejected the prospect of British involvement in yet another ill-conceived foreign intervention effectively ended Western attempts to provide the rebels with military support - doubly so after Barack Obama used the British vote as an excuse to renege on his own threats to attack the Assad regime. Countries such as Britain, America and France have continued to provide the rebels with low-level support, for instance Land Rovers and communications equipment. But this is hardly likely to turn the tables on the better equipped and highly motivated regime loyalists. Moreover, the desire to support the opposition has waned somewhat as the secular groups that initiated the anti-Assad revolt have been superseded by Islamist militants, who have demonstrated their commitment to the cause by indulging in an orgy of mass executions and public beheadings of rival rebel fighters.
The arrival, moreover, of thousands of foreign jihadists, including an estimated 500 British fighters, has finally persuaded many Western officials that, so far as their own countries' long-term security interests are concerned, a rebel victory in Syria might not, after all, be the most desirable of outcomes. In Britain, certainly, the gravest security challenge occupying the minds of our intelligence chiefs is what is likely to happen when all these radicalised young British fighters return home and look for new outlets through which to channel their fanatical agenda. This would certainly help to explain the surprising report published in the Wall Street Journal this week claiming that a number of senior Western intelligence officials - including representatives of Britain's own MI6 - have been quietly making their way to Damascus to discuss the activities of Western jihadists with their opposite numbers in the Assad regime. Whitehall intelligence sources yesterday sought to play down the suggestion that British spies would co-operate with Assad, which would, after all, undermine the Government's official policy of supporting the rebels.
But Faisal Mekdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, insists such meetings have taken place, with Western intelligence officers seeking to share information about the activities of Western jihadists fighting with al-Qaeda-linked groups. And the fact that Spanish officials have confirmed the presence of their own intelligence representatives in Damascus certainly suggests that many of our leaders are now facing up to the painful truth that it is the Islamist militants, rather than Assad, who pose the greatest threat. Better late than never, I say, even if the timing of the spooks' Damascene visitations will hardly help efforts to persuade moderate rebel Syrian leaders to attend next week's scheduled peace talks in Geneva. Not surprisingly, the Syrian National Coalition, which has yet to decide whether it will participate in the talks, will regard any contact between Western officials and the Assad government as an act of betrayal.
The opposition do, of course, have a point, but the brutal truth is that unless the West acts now to address the mounting threat posed by British and other foreign jihadists flocking to Syria, then the day will soon come when the failures of our Syrian policy are felt closer to home.