Syria conflict: No restrictions on arming opposition forces says Hague

Foreign Secretary William Hague William Hague: "Intensive diplomatic activity"

The UK and its allies would be able to send arms to Syrian opposition groups straightaway if they felt such a move was justified, William Hague has said.

Moderate groups fighting the government can be armed after an existing EU embargo was lifted on Monday.

The foreign secretary said the UK had no plans to send weapons straightaway but was not precluded from doing so under the terms of the EU's agreement.

MPs from all parties have warned about weapons falling into extremists' hands.

The EU's embargo on arming participants in the two-year conflict expired after a meeting on Monday, with EU nations now authorised to send weapons to the main opposition group, the National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces.

The decision, which permits action to "protect civilians", was taken on the understanding that no arms would be sent "at this stage" and the situation would be reviewed in early August.

Mr Hague told the BBC the decision gave Britain and its allies greater flexibility to respond to any further deterioration in the situation in Syria, where more than 70,000 people have been killed since 2011.

He suggested it would put pressure on all parties to attend a proposed peace conference in Geneva next month, backed by the EU, the United States, Russia and countries in the Middle East.

'Fully militarised'

"It is part of supporting the intensive diplomatic activity we have at the moment to make sure the regime and the opposition come to the negotiating table," he told BBC Radio 4's World At One programme.

Start Quote

There is a very strong feeling in the country that we should be very reluctant to be drawn in this conflict”

End Quote John Redwood Conservative MP

Mr Hague said the conflict in Syria was already "fully militarised" - with Iran and Russia among those supplying weapons to the authorities.

Moderate opponents of President Assad, he added, were being driven to extremism by the perception that they "were being denied the means to defend themselves".

The UK has insisted it has not taken any decision to send weapons and the public could be reassured it would do so only "in carefully controlled circumstances and in company with other countries and in accordance with international law".

While the UK's focus was on diplomatic efforts, he said it was incorrect to suggest that the UK's hands would be tied for three months until a planned EU meeting on 1 August.

"There has been some suggestion of an August deadline - that is not the case. We have made our own commitments at this stage that we are not taking any decision to send arms to anyone.

"But that is not related to a date of 1 August. I would not want people to think there is any automatic decision after 1 August or we are excluded from doing so beforehand."

According to the Interfax news agency, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has suggested arming "non-state actors" was unlawful.

'Nervous'

Ex-Conservative minister John Redwood said he would be "very nervous" about arming any combatants in Syria and that while he and many colleagues "hate the Assad regime", they feared intervention would make the situation worse.

"There is a very strong feeling in the country that we should be very reluctant to be drawn in this conflict," he said.

"The question with arming the rebels, first of all, is how do you get the arms in without the regime intercepting them... Secondly, when you have got them through, how do you identify the good rebels because everybody agrees the rebel cause has some less desirable people involved as well as fledgling democrats.

"And thirdly, how do you then train them and get them to use them sensibly."

Labour said it was unclear how supplying arms to the rebels would help bring about a peaceful end to the conflict and called on the government to explain to Parliament how it would prevent weapons "falling into the wrong hands".

"The EU-wide arms embargo has ended because agreement within the member states could not be reached, and because significant disagreement remains about the merits of sending arms to Syria's opposition," a spokesman said.

Amnesty International says far stronger assurances are needed over who might be getting weapons and what will happen in the event of them being used to commit human rights abuses.

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