William Hague to brief MPs on plans to either recognise the new coalition or call for a lifting of the EU arms embargo
Foreign secretary William Hague is to brief the Commons next week on plans to step up support for the newly united Syrian opposition, either by following France in recognising the new coalition, or by calling for a lifting of the EU arms embargo.
Hague will meet his French counterpart next week after planned meetings with the Syrian opposition on Friday, while the French president François Hollande will meet key Syrian figures on Saturday in Paris, including the head of the Syrian opposition coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.
This week France became the first western power to accept the opposition coalition as the legitimate government-in-exile.
Turkey has also recognised the opposition.
The Syrian opposition made progress towards unification at a meeting in Doha last weekend and has now agreed to set up a permanent headquarters in Cairo.
The state of the opposition, British military options and the morale of the Assad regime were all discussed on Thursday at a meeting of the National Security Council – in essence a cabinet subcommittee attended by ministers and military and intelligence officers.
It was stressed that Britain was likely to offer only direct military support for the humanitarian effort as opposed to direct military intervention.
Britain’s most senior general, the chief of defence staff, General Sir David Richards, is known to be wary of committing UK forces to any venture that might provoke what it is intended to prevent – a regional conflict. His advice to the NSC is believed to have explained that it would be extremely difficult to begin any kind of ground effort to support refugees within Syria without first having secured a no-fly zone – and that would mean knocking out President Assad’s considerable, and sophisticated, Russian-built ground-to-air missile systems. That in itself would require a huge military buildup in the region, which could take some time.
But It is possible that Assad would allow limited support to Syrian refugees on the border with Turkey, though any buildup of western forces could be counter-productive.
Richards is understood to have made clear that if there was any sign that the regime was disintegrating, and a risk that Assad’s stockpile of chemical and biological weapons could get into the wrong hands, then the west would have to be in a position to intervene quickly.
The MoD recognises that Downing Street wants to help, but Richards set out why the situation in Syria is more complex, and much more dangerous, than the one posed by Libya.
The British backed a Nato-implemented no-fly zone in Libya to protect rebels against the Gaddafi regime, but this was heavily dependent on the US to supply the drone and aircraft support to make that possible. Britain may yet be willing to back a no-fly zone to protect Syrian refugees.
Hague has said the more the opposition groups unify around a coherent programme built on respect for human rights and ethnic tolerance, the more the British government can provide aid.
Britain is largely relying on countries in the Middle East to supply arms, and waiting for the US administration to make clear its attitude to a no-fly zone.
But French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday that his country was willing to advocate a lifting of the EU embargo on the provision of arms to the opposition so long as only specialised defensive arms, such as anti-aircraft weaponry, were supplied. The Russians are likely to see any provision of military arms as a breach of international law.
Fabius said: “For the moment, there is an embargo, so there are no arms being delivered from the European side. The issue … will no doubt be raised for defensive arms.”
Last week, David Cameron visited a UN-run compound on the border with Jordan and saw how difficult life has become for tens of thousands of fleeing Syrians. He said he was determined to do more and would be discussing with US president Barack Obama ways to increase the pressure on Bashar Assad’s regime. hed Cameron is likely to visit Washington in the near future.
Before the weekend meeting in Qatar, the outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the opposition to become more credible in order to earn the support of the west. “There has to be representation of those who are on the front lines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom,” she said.
“This cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes, but have, in many instances, have not been inside Syria for 20, 30 or 40 years.”
Earlier this week Richards revealed there are contingency plans in place for military action in Syria in case of a worsening humanitarian situation during the desert winter. “The humanitarian situation this winter I think will deteriorate and that may well provoke calls to intervene in a limited way,” he said. “But no, there’s no ultimately military reason why one shouldn’t, and I know that all these options are, quite rightly, being examined.
“It’s not impossible and obviously we develop contingency plans to look at all these things.”
He said British troops could be posted to countries neighbouring Syria. “It’s certainly something that we’ve got to look at,” he said. “So we’re keeping our awareness levels very high and in the meanwhile we’re preparing plans to make sure that when some disaster happens, we’re able to deal with it.”
Some 30,000 people are believed to have died in the conflict so far.