UK does not rule out arms to Syria rebels

March 04, 2013 - 1:19:48 am

A member of the Free Syrian Army inspects the wreckage of a helicopter, belonging to forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad, near Menagh military airport in Aleppo, yesterday.

LONDON/damascus: Britain cannot rule out providing arms to Syrian rebels in the future, although a new aid package it will announce this week will consist only of non-lethal assistance, Foreign Secretary William Hague said yesterday.

Western countries have so far shied away from arming the rebels fighting against President Bashar Al Assad, despite their firm diplomatic backing for efforts to remove him.

Syrian fighters are getting increasingly large shipments of arms through Turkey and Jordan in recent months, with funding for those weapons believed to come from wealthy Arab states.

Washington said on Thursday it would provide non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels to bolster their popular support. The package is expected to include medical supplies, food and $60m. New US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday he believed giving only “non-lethal support” was correct. Britain has in the past also offered non-lethal aid to the rebels, such as radios, body armour and medical supplies. Hague is set to make an announcement to parliament this week about more aid, but told BBC television it would not include weapons.

“I will not be announcing this week arms to the Syrian opposition,” he said in an interview. “I don’t rule out anything for the future. “If this is going to go on for months or years ... and countries like Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan are going to be destabilised, it’s not something we can ignore,” Hague added.

“You can reach the point eventually where humanitarian need is so great and the loss of life so great that you have to do something new in order to save lives.”

Hague has previously said Britain was keeping its options open in Syria, and the Foreign Office said his remarks yesterday were not intended to signal a shift in policy.

Nevertheless, the question of whether the West will shift to explicit military support is being closely watched at a time when more non-lethal aid is being pledged and Syrian opposition leaders are trying to demonstrate to foreign backers that they can curb the influence of Islamist radicals in their ranks.

President Bashar Al Assad said in a rare interview he is ready to negotiate with the opposition but will not step down, as the UN chief and his Syria envoy offered to broker peace talks between his regime and rebel leaders.

“We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms,” Assad told The Sunday Times in a videotaped interview conducted last week in his Damascus residence, the Al Muhajireen palace. “We can engage in dialogue with the opposition, but we cannot engage in dialogue with terrorists.”

Assad also said Britain’s involvement in the Syria crisis was naive and unrealistic.

“How can we expect them (Britain) to make the violence less when they want to send military supplies to the terrorists?” Assad said in the interview.

Hague dismissed Assad’s remarks as “delusional”.

“This is a man presiding over this slaughter. The message to him is: ‘We, Britain, are the people sending food and shelter and blankets to help people driven from their homes and families in his name’,” Hague said.

Iran, Assad’s main ally, also criticised the West for pledging more aid to fighters.

“The announcement of more help for terrorists by political authorities is a big mistake and they will soon see the results,” said Revolutionary Guards commander Brigadier-General Massoud Jazayeri, state news agency Irna reported yesterday. 

“Some European countries and America who are causing the chaos in Syria will be targeted heavily by these same terrorists. Links between them show that this is a precursor to transferring the agitation from Syria to other places,” he said.

Nearly two years of war in Syria has killed 70,000 people and driven millions from their homes. The opposition made major military gains in the second half of 2012 and now controls substantial territory, but is still outgunned by Assad’s forces.

Jordan’s national carrier Royal Jordanian has stopped flying over Syrian airspace for security reasons, the airline’s head said yesterday. 

Syria is a major air and land transport hub for the Gulf and eastern Europe, and nearly two years of revolt there against Assad has already severely hit multibillion dollar cargo routes from Turkey to the Gulf and vice versa.

The airline, a leading regional carrier, said the move would primarily affect Beirut, a major destination, with a route via Egyptian airspace and over the Mediterranean making a longer journey of its four daily flights.

“This move reflects the airline’s commitment to the safety of passengers and security of operations, even though this procedure involves additional costs to the company,” Amer Hadidi, President and CEO of Royal Jordanian said.

Opponents of President Bashar Al Assad voted yesterday to elect 29 provincial council members to run rebel-held areas in the northern province of Aleppo, organisers and participants said.

“For the first time, Aleppo will have a freely elected provincial council. We hope the whole of Syria will have a free election soon,” candidate Yehia Naanaa from the bombed-out town of Hreitan said.Agencies