Sunday 18 March 2018

UK government may intervene to arm Syrian rebels

Theo Usherwood

THE UK could start arming Syrian rebels, Foreign Secretary William Hague warned today.

Mr Hague said he would ask the European Union to lift its arms embargo to Syria, paving the way for the Government to start arming the Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

But he said that if ministers did decide to arm Syrian rebels, the UK would focus its efforts only on moderate political forces.

In a statement to the Commons, Mr Hague said the Government had not yet decided to provide weapons, as well as non-lethal support such as satellite communications which it already provides.

But he said ministers want to take the steps needed to arm the rebels if the situation in Syria deteriorates, telling MPs that it was not clear whether the international envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, could be successful in brokering an end to the violence.

He said: "Clearly the best outcome for the Syrian people would be a diplomatic breakthrough, bringing an end to the bloodshed and establishing a new Syrian government able to restore stability.

"However, we must keep open options to help save lives in Syria and to assist opposition groups opposed to extremism if the violence continues. We should send strong signals to Assad that all options are on the table.

"We will therefore seek to amend the EU sanctions so that the possibility of additional assistance is not closed off.

"No one can be sure how the situation in Syria will develop over the next few months. There is no guarantee that Mr Brahimi's efforts to mediate will be successful.

"President Assad's speech last week urged the Syrian people to unite in a war against his opponents and, given the regime's intransigence and brutality, there is a serious risk that the violence will indeed worsen in the next few months.

"If that happens, the international community's response will have to be stepped up and so we will not rule out any options to save lives and protect civilians in the absence of a political transition in Syria.

"We will ensure that our efforts are legal, that they are aimed at saving life and they support at all times the objective of a political transition and encouraging moderate political forces in Syria."

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said he was worried about the idea of supplying Syrian rebels with weapons.

In an exchange with the Foreign Secretary, he said: "I note with some continuing concern all that you have stated and so can I urge you to provide more detail to the House on the following matters - can you set out as much as you are able to, what are the UK Government's latest assessments on the role of AQ (al Qaida) and other extremist organisations now operating within Syria?

"Given your statement, do you not accept that Syria is literally awash with arms? Do you recognise the very grave and continuing difficulties of guaranteeing the end use of weapons supplied in to Syria, given the present uncertainty around the identity, intent and tactics of some of the rebel forces?

"Do you not accept that if Europe was to decide to arm the rebel forces, it is perfectly possible that Russia would increase its own supply of arms to the Assad regime?

"And so can I ask you, not least given the recent warnings of the (Commons) Foreign Affairs Select Committee in an important report, what would encourage you to believe that intensifying the conflict would reduce the appalling level of suffering of the Syrian people?"

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