Syria unrest: Opposition seeks arms pledge

 

Unverified footage shows an apparent attack by opposition fighters on one of President Assad's tanks, as Bridget Kendall reports from Tunis

The main Syrian opposition group has asked for rebel fighters to be allowed to import weapons.

The plea came at a major international "Friends of Syria" conference being held in Tunisia to seek a breakthrough in the increasingly bitter conflict.

A declaration is expected later, calling on Syrian forces to declare a ceasefire and allow humanitarian access to the worst-hit areas.

Syrian state TV said the conference was a meeting of "symbols of colonialism".

Those attending, it said, were "historic enemies of the Arabs".

The US, Europe and Arab countries plan to challenge President Bashar al-Assad to provide humanitarian access within days, with the threat of fresh sanctions if he does not comply.

Around 70 nations, including the US, UK, France and Turkey, are attending the conference, organised by the Arab League.

Start Quote

The Friends of Syria should not constrain individual countries from aiding the Syrian opposition by means of military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves”

End Quote Syrian National Council

But Russia and China, key allies of Syria which have blocked UN resolutions again Damascus, are not there.

A group of pro-Assad protesters forced their way into the grounds of the hotel where the conference is being held, Reuters news agency reported, but tight security prevented them getting into the building.

'Offensive measures'

The leading opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said countries should be allowed to supply arms if Damascus refused to bow to outside pressure.

Analysis

Syrian opposition groups point to the disparity of force in this conflict - their Kalashnikovs against Syrian government artillery - and are calling for arms supplies to help them defend themselves against President Assad's forces.

For now, at least, Western governments believe that arms supplies would only further militarise the conflict, making a bad situation worse. But if the bloodshed continues then the pressure - at least covertly - to arm the opposition will grow.

I asked UK Foreign Secretary William Hague as he arrived at the conference to confront this question square on. Had the time come - I asked - to arm the Syrian opposition fighters? There was, he replied, a European Union arms embargo in place against Syria and Britain, he stressed, would abide by it.

There was of course an arms embargo in force in Libya but that didn't prevent Qatar, France and others supplying weaponry to Col Gaddafi's opponents. Even the US seems to be shifting its position slightly - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implying that one way or another the opposition would get arms from somewhere. If the fighting continues this is going to become an ever more pressing question.

"If the regime fails to accept the terms of the political initiative outlined by the Arab League and end violence against citizens, the Friends of Syria should not constrain individual countries from aiding the Syrian opposition by means of military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves."

The conference endorsed the council as a "credible" voice of opposition, while making clear it did not exclude other groups - thereby stopping short of declaring it a plausible government-in-waiting.

At least one other opposition group, the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), is boycotting the meeting, saying it excludes some voices and leaves open the idea of military intervention, AFP news agency reports.

Activists say more than 7,000 people have died in the 11-month uprising - more than 90 on Thursday alone - and concern is growing over the humanitarian situation, particularly in the besieged city of Homs.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) appealed this week for a pause in fighting to allow aid to be taken in, but said it had received no response from Damascus.

The ICRC said it was becoming "more and more concerned over humanitarian needs that are increasing by the hour".

Spokesman Hicham Hassan told Reuters news agency: "It is crucial that our initiative is met with a positive and concrete reaction urgently."

Journalists' appeal

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the conference the Syrian government had "ignored every warning, squandered every opportunity and broken every agreement".

"If the Assad regime refuses to allow this life-saving aid to reach civilians, it will have ever-more blood on its hands,'' she said in opening remarks.

Edith Bouvier, speaking on 23 February: "I need an urgent operation"

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said "terrible crimes" were being committed in Homs.

"I think we have seen enough in the last few weeks to know that the Assad regime will go down in history as a criminal regime," he said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the conference needed to exert the maximum pressure on the Syrian government and also on Russia, but insisted there was no military option on the table and France could not envisage such an option without an international mandate.

The BBC's Jonathan Marcus in Tunis says the conference is a means of getting around Russia and China, which have faced Western and Arab criticism for vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria and Mr Assad.

Moscow and Beijing have said they want to see an end to the violence but that such action amounts to forced regime change.

On the eve of the conference, the UN and Arab League appointed Kofi Annan as their envoy to Syria.

Mr Annan, a former UN secretary general who has acted as a diplomatic troubleshooter in several long-running conflicts, said he hoped to "help bring an end to the violence and human rights abuses, and promote a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis".

Diplomats attending the conference say the UN will call for preparations to start an Arab/UN peacekeeping force for Syria, to assist with the political transition after the violence ends, the BBC's Kim Ghattas reports from Tunis.

The civilian police force would be deployed only in a "permissive" environment, under Chapter 6 of the UN charter.

Diplomats said the efforts were designed to show a political transition was inevitable and that President Assad's rule was coming to an end.

The conference comes two days after two journalists - American Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik - died during shelling in Homs.

Two journalists wounded in the same attack have made internet appeals for medical help. Frenchwoman Edith Bouvier is being treated by Syrian medics but needs surgery which they are unable to perform. Paul Conroy, who is British, also asked for outside help to bring him to safety.

 

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  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 126.

    Its no wonder the islamic world hates the west, we would hate them if they kept sticking there beaks into our business.

    Its funny how Britain always seems to be the country that has to sort out other countries problem when in reality it should be sorting out its own affairs first. We would be able to help others a lot better in the long run if we sorted out our own problems first.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 125.

    120.ali

    And your concept of war is? Using Chemical weapons against your own people, Snipers shooting children on purpose?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 124.

    Who are the opposition? What's there agenda? Will the area be safer with them in power? Who is backing them? These are the questions we need to see answered before we can even think of supporting them. Assad's regime may be a brutal dictatorship but at least it is secular.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 123.

    Be funny if the people of Afghanistan or Iraq had an uprising and demanded a change of government. What would the west do then ? Seems that only if your government is approved and created by the west,then you'll survive, otherwise you're out..

  • Comment number 122.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 121.

    107. working Stiff Well said, anyone who thinks that the Arab Spring is about freedom is nothing more than a fool. People who cry arab spring wont talk about Gay peoples rights yet alone women freedoms. This is nothing more than replacing one bunch of nutters with another bunch of nutters who go a different way. No UK money should be spent on the Arab spring.

  • rate this
    -9

    Comment number 120.

    And your concept of a proper war is what? Dropping bombs from the sky? Selling chemical weapons to some despot that you finance so that he can go to war with a neighbouring country? arming opposition groups so that they can fight the war that you want so dearly?
    Through your proxy agents in the Middle East you sponsor sectarianism and division amongst the muslims.

  • Comment number 119.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    -10

    Comment number 118.

    Of course the opposition need arms, initially for self defence and then to oust the ghastly regime of Assad and his cronies. But why doesn't the West step in to actively help? Saddam Gadafi, the Taliban - the West has flushed these tyrants down the toilet of history. Assad is surely as bad as they were and merits similar treatment. Then on to Tehran...

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 117.

    @ 101.LEEshulim "Why don't our politicians sort out the problems we have here at home. ......sick and tired of hearing about it."

    Your leaders bundled unfriendly tribes into artificial borders and the weaker tribes of yesteryears have got stronger and are asserting themselves. You have to pay for whatever benefits you got from imperialism.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 116.

    111. Red_5
    Yes, but what did Iraq have to do with 9/11? They were'nt involved at all, It was a smoke-screen to get oil!!! Do some people not know this........??????

    Please, let's not hope we get another Republican in power in the US, the world cannot handle another complete loone, imagine Cameron and a Republican - spiders....

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 115.

    Why is it the Britain must intervene yet again. Why does'nt the UN push the Russian and the Chinese to sort this one out as they are probably the ones with the most influence. Dont get me wrong, I think it is appauling what is happening, but we are not the worlds sheriff. We fixed the others, its about time the rest of the world got off its dole walling backside.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 114.

    What ever the *west* does or doesn't do, innocent people, many of them children & infants, will die. That is the way of conflict. Of course, if all the populations of the world could manage to promote intelligent people to positions of power, there might not be so much fighting. Planet Earth is so awash with testosterone at the moment, it would be laughable, were it not such a blood-bath

  • Comment number 113.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 112.

    Leave well alone. Haven't we learned our lesson yet? Everything the British have ever got involved in has turned sour except WW2. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Suez, Korea, Cyprus, India, Palestine, Ireland. What the late John Smith said of John Major "the non-Midas touch". Look at the Suez Commons debate (esp Aneurin Bevan speech) to see us repeating each shambles regularly.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 111.

    @65 ali

    Now lets asume 9/11 didnt happen, there would of been no invasion of Iraq or Afganistan...but it did so what do you expect the americans and west to just allow man men crash passanger jets into there cities without any relailation? erm nope!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 110.

    I guess one can never be certain when, if not where, President Assad attends his ablutions. But with a little intelligence one imagines a pair of well aimed tomahawks might pull his chain - so to speak.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 109.

    #100 Ali

    I don't actually think the US is very interested in Syria. It was hardly enthusiastic about the Libyan adventure. America actually stuck to the letter of the UN and only enforced the no fly zone.

    The Islamics love to hate America and the West but at various times call out for our help... Kosovo, Libya, Syria...

    UN resolution to outlaw Islamic states? No bad thing?

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 108.

    I believe the reason Bush invaded Iraq is that he was sick and tired of all the pussy-footers who talk but don't do. he just got fed up and said 'lets just do it'. It doesn't make him right but looking at Syria we do see that inaction also has a price attached. Do the same people who argue for inaction also argue for unfettered immigration into the UK? Because one follows logically from the other.

  • Comment number 107.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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