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
    +5

    Comment number 146.

    We're being asked yet again? In any case, supplying arms to wars like this has historically been a very bad idea.

  • Comment number 145.

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

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 144.

    nice to see the extremist right wingers turning this debate into an west vs islam instead of showing compassion to the syrians. those extremist right wingers seem to be no better than assad.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 143.

    Has your American/Saudi backed transition plan sorted out Yemen?

  • Comment number 142.

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

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 141.

    @100.
    ali
    29 Minutes ago

    The assumption that the US has the interests of the Syrian people at heart is laughable. No other nation on this earth has started more wars or killed more civilians than the US. If there is a country badly in need of revolution and revolt it is the US.

    really?, I suggest you brush up on your history!

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 140.

    #132.ali
    'As for nuclear weapons, my philosophy is as follows; we either all have them or nobody has them.'

    So are you campaigning to get rid of Nukes or the right of Iran to build Nukes? Rhetorical question of course....

    Want to talk about Iranian involvement in Yemen? Doesn't look like it.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 139.

    what is happening in Syria is heartbreaking. Marie Colvin's last report from Homs - where she witnessed a 2 year old die from shrapnel wounds - was heartbreaking.
    But ..
    There are plenty of Arab countries in the region bristling with weapons. What is wrong with these people? Are they cowards? Do they not care that Syrian civilians have heavy weapons turned upon them?
    It's time for them to step up.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 138.

    Dear BBC /Moderators etc etc
    THANKYOU for at last allowing us to comment on Syria.
    Who knows what next ,Falklands,Tibet Human rights,MR Cameron stating that any criticism of business means you must be an anti capitalist etc.
    Any how its amazing or maybe not how Russia & China in this case and the West in the past put political influence and resources above human suffering!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 137.

    The problem with us is we only listen to one story - the one that favour us and our leaders only have one solution - the biggest bombs.
    Until humankind find another way to resolve issues, stop supporting armed uprising, we will continue to waste beautiful life fighting unecessary wars.

  • Comment number 136.

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

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 135.

    BBC Moderator !

    Islamifiction is a genuine fear and is perceived as growing !! look to the legislation in Europe !
    Israeli Politicians have already said Quote ! Israel is worried that
    After the Arab Spring there maybe a Winter of Terrorism !
    It may not suit your bias.. But its worth repeating !! so lets keep out of Syria..

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 134.

    I wonder if the Russians leader feels proud of himself when he sees the pictures of devestation like this! However the opposition are not a single group, they are made up of many religions and sects who would not normally be fighting together and who knows how long or even if they can work together. We are not the worlds police and it is Russias fault the UN have not been able to act at all.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 133.

    Doubt Cameron will think twice. He's itching to get stuck into another war and earn his stripes among his aristocratic friends. Him and the odious William Hague.

  • rate this
    -10

    Comment number 132.

    If Islamic countries stopped flying planes into buildings?

    Think about that one.

    As for nuclear weapons, my philosophy is as follows; we either all have them or nobody has them.

  • Comment number 131.

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

  • Comment number 130.

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

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 129.

    I completely disagree with the top comments; we should not just leave Syria to fix its own problems and for the UK to stay out of it, it is this belief that the Government had before, which inevitably led to the greatest global destruction and tragedy; WW1 and 2. We, as a modernised country, should be helping other countries, it doesn't even need to be financial help, just putting pressure can do

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 128.

    I find it amazing so many of the comments are that it’s West v Islam/Arabs or The West grabbing oil. It’s not! Although I have not been to Syria, I have been to Saudi, Bahrain, Oman, UAE, Libya, etc. – and you know what, Arabs are just like us. They want a civilized, caring, democratic society to live in and bring up their families. That’s what this is all about.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 127.

    Whatever happens in the Middle East, let’s all just hope (and prey maybe) that the majority of the citizens achieve the freedom that has always been hard fought for in history; it’s called democracy. We may not like the outcome, but we will just have to cross that bridge when we come to it. At the minimum, let’s just hope.

 

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