UK Politics

Hague: 'Options open' on military support for Syrian rebels

William Hague in the Commons
William Hague said the UK had a "moral obligation" to help save lives in Syria

The UK has not excluded providing military assistance to the Syrian opposition, should the conflict worsen, William Hague has said.

He told MPs the UK would look to amend the EU arms embargo so "additional assistance" was "not closed off".

He also pledged an additional £2m of "non-lethal" support to the Syrian opposition and civil society.

Labour welcomed the government's efforts to support political transition in Syria.

Mr Hague told MPs there was a "serious risk" that the violence in Syria would increase in the coming months and the international community's response "will have to be stepped up".

He said the UK had a "moral obligation" to help save lives in the country.

'Intransigence and brutality'

The UK has formally recognised the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Syrian people.

So far, it has provided £7.4m of non-lethal equipment and support to Syrian opposition groups. This will now be boosted to £9.4m.

The support includes solar powered lighting, generators, communication equipment and water purification kits.

Mr Hague 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.

"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."

However, efforts would be legal, aimed at saving life, supportive of political transition and encourage moderate political forces, he added.

Questioned by MPs about the kind of additional assistance the UK could provide, Mr Hague spoke of non-lethal military equipment currently covered by the embargo such as body armour.

'Appalling suffering'

Mr Hague also pledged a further £15m in humanitarian relief, including blankets, food parcels and warm clothing, to help more than 100,000 people.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander welcomed the government's continued support for a stable political transition, but expressed concern at the possible arming of rebels.

Questioning Mr Hague, Mr Alexander asked: "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?"

Mr Alexander said the UK's efforts should be directed at reaching international agreement and meeting immediate humanitarian needs, not intensifying the conflict.