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 166.

    Dear Moderator/Public
    Whilst listening to all sides in this terrible humanitarian situation,i took time out and read Nick Cohens "You Cant Read This Book",censorship in an age of freedom!
    It helps !

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 165.

    Disgraceful moderation on this today - blatant trolling from the anti-west movement with no removals - anything fact based from a number of posters removed.

    Will look forward to discussing Scottish Independence & the water drought once again next week ;-)

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 164.

    at what point does standing at the wayside while innocents are slaughtered become too much?, what lengths should the UN go to, to stop this massacre?, we all have questions, sadly, those in power lack answers, there is nothing more inhumane in this world than humanity.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 163.

    What we seem to be seeing now from Syria are open death camps the size of whole towns and cities. Assad seems to be committing genocide in public without shame and without regret but with pride and the blessing of Russia and China. What are their leaders thinking of?

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 162.

    Civilians in Homs and Syria could be reading our comments at this moment. Can we not show a little compassion rather than make stereotypical pronouncements on the evilness of Islam? What type of humanity is being demonstrated here?

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 161.

    142.theilliberal

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.
    ___

    Everything I've stated comes from the news yet I'm forbade from mentioning it even though it's relative to Syrian oppression, ironic!

  • rate this
    +13

    Comment number 160.

    It would be a bad idea to supply arms to them. As good as their cause is we don't know who they really are, who's behind them, or what they plan to do with Syria if they win. After Iraq i think we should tread very carefully before getting to involved.

  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 159.

    Do you weep tears for those who are killed in Bahrain and Yemen? or do you open your Murdoch press tabloids and wait to be told who is deserving of your pity?
    When your imperialist petrol stations open fire on their citizens, you turn the other cheek. Oil really is thicker than blood.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 158.

    Arming them is the option that keeps the Arab spring going. Otherwise defeat of the uprising in Syria dampens the spirits of those who are wanting democracy or regime change in their own countries.

    It sure beats us having to go in and do it anyway.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 157.

    When we stand to gain financially we invade or arm rebels (albeit following the US), when we don't stand to gain or profit somehow from another countries crisis, we stand by and use contradictory excuses.

    I thought Dimbleby (who I often admire) behaved immaturely last night on QT, we will NOT intervene, it's obvious to me, and it's obvious to others who understand the agenda.

  • Comment number 156.

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

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 155.

    It's time for the US & its NATO's Allies to act deciviely to provide foods, medical supplies, shelters, protection, safety for civilians. Syrian opposition forces are deserved to receive military supports from their Arab countries, US & EU's. Timing is very crucial to win this war before it will be too late...!!!

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 154.

    I wish our politicians would just be honest - we are impotent in Syria unless the UN acts as one with full and wholehearted support.
    Anything else risks a biblical disaster if it all goes wrong, the last desperate act of a dictator is often ill advised foreign adventures.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 153.

    The Asad regime is odious BUT has been moderated by the many moderate Syrian's who have had to work for & criticized it from within regardless of political/religious/regional background.I wish we were hearing more of what they have to say about how to enact change.Plus why is the US being so crass & dydactic in its responses? do they want Iraq 2? & what do Israel & Iran think about the situation?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 152.

    Problem in Syria is Iran Rusia & China as big 2 security council members do not wish to vote for anything at UN that puts their own evil dictatorships under scrutiny. UN constitution needs to be changed to allow majority of UN members to over-ride Security Council veto held by these communist dinosaurs. Logically, a majority of UN states should be able to pass UN resolution? UN deadlock is absurd!

  • Comment number 151.

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

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 150.

    The West is outraged at the violence perpetrated on innocent civilians trapped in Homs. Their reaction is hampered by their double standards.
    When the Israeli regime carried out precisely the same violence on the children trapped in Gaza (2009) and southern Lebanon (2007), the West did very little, and the US kept shipping in weapons, as Russia is doing now to Syria.
    Whose side are you on ?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 149.

    I suspect arming the opposition will not lead to a democratic government in the long term, although I suspect that there are those in the US and UK who would benefit financially from flogging them weapons.
    However didn't the West help arm the Mujahideen in the Afghan-Soviet war; I wonder what became of them?
    I doubt the other Arab countries really care much. They didn't help the Bosniacs did they?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 148.

    @Ali
    I'm thinking about it. Still thinking about it.
    Still seems rather true to me.
    What is your point?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 147.

    If during the riots in London and other British cities they had declared they wanted a new government would we have been happy if other countries had decided to arm them.
    Western Countries have often killed their own people for demanding less, No one intervened we eventually got what we deserved. The rich still exploiting the poor and making us pay for the privilege everytime they make a mistake

 

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