UK may arm Syrian rebels within months: We should not rule out any option, says Hague

UK may arm Syrian rebels within months: We should not rule out any option, says HagueWilliam Hague reveals plan to send non-lethal equipment to bolster opposition forcesForeign Secretary tells MPs forces will also be trained in detecting chemical weaponsIran providing 'considerable military support' to AssadLabour says the UK should be uniting the opposition, not arming it

By
Jason Groves

PUBLISHED:

13:24 GMT, 6 March 2013

|

UPDATED:

23:37 GMT, 6 March 2013

Britain could start arming rebel fighters in Syria within months, William Hague hinted yesterday, as he warned the conflict was becoming a ‘catastrophic’ humanitarian crisis.

The Foreign Secretary told MPs that Britain would send millions of pounds worth of armoured vehicles and body armour to Syrian rebels fighting to depose dictator Bashar al-Assad.

And he said Britain was ‘ready to move further’ if the fighting, which has already claimed 70,000 lives, continues to intensify. ‘We should not rule out any option for saving lives,’ he added.

Foreign Secretary William Hague told MPs Britain could now send non-lethal equipment to Syria opposition forces

Foreign Secretary William Hague told MPs Britain could now send non-lethal equipment to Syria opposition forces

Members of the Free Syrian Army chant slogans against Assad in Azzaz, Aleppo province in July last year

Members of the Free Syrian Army chant slogans against Assad in Azzaz, Aleppo province in July last year

As the number of refugees fleeing the
conflict in Syria topped one million, Mr Hague said Britain believed
Assad could use chemical weapons against his own people.

Testing equipment to provide evidence of any use of chemical weapons is also being sent.

Foreign Office sources last night
confirmed that Mr Hague could push for a further easing of an EU arms
embargo as soon as May to allow Britain to send guns and ammunition to
rebel fighters.

Mr Hague said Syria was becoming the
‘top destination for jihadists anywhere in the world’, with Al Qaeda
fighters pouring into the country to join the battle against Assad.

Critics have warned there is a serious risk that arming the rebels could put weapons into the hands of Al Qaeda.

Members of the Martyr Abdallah Al Kaakeh battalion are seen on the front line in their conflict with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo's Salaheddine district

Members of the Martyr Abdallah Al Kaakeh battalion are seen on the front line in their conflict with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo's Salaheddine district

But Mr Hague suggested that the rise
of the jihadists underlined the case for backing more moderate rebels
who are outgunned by government forces, which are being supplied with
weapons by Russia and Iran.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies
Campbell warned that Britain was in danger of being dragged into another
Iraq-style conflict.

Mr Hague said there were no signs that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad intends to enter into a genuine political process

Mr Hague said there were no signs that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad intends to enter into a genuine political process

Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander also warned against arming the rebels.

He said: ‘Syria today is replete with
arms. The priority for the British Government should be to work to
unify the Syrian opposition, not to arm it.’

Former defence minister
Sir Gerald Howarth told Mr Hague: ‘I am extremely concerned that the
United Kingdom’s hand is being drawn ever more closely into this
mangle.’

But former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said Britain should be arming the moderate Syrian rebels now.

He said: ‘Until such time as the
Syrian opposition have the military equipment that will enable them to
defeat the Assad regime – and thereby bring the conflict to an end
earlier than would otherwise be the case – we will see a continuation of
tens of thousands of people being killed and the extremists in the
opposition will benefit from that delay.’

The chief of staff of the rebel army
in Syria was in Brussels yesterday, pleading with the international
community to supply it with arms and ammunition to help topple Assad.

Mr Hague said he would hold talks in
London with his Russian counterpart next week in a bid to secure
support for a diplomatic solution.

He warned that Assad believed he
could count on being ‘shielded’ at the United Nations, where Russia has,
until now, vetoed action against Syria.

Mr Hague said the conflict in Syria had had reached 'catastrophic' proportions

Mr Hague said the conflict in Syria had had reached 'catastrophic' proportions