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.


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

    Comment number 286.

    284 No, whenever we get involved we end up the bad guys. Also who would we be arming? - it is suggested many of these rebel fighters are part of Al-Queda. Giving more arms is only likely to make a terrible situation even worst & put Syrian children at ever more risk. Humanitarian aid & sanctions via the UN only. We need to learn our lesson from our interventions in Iraq & Afghanistan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    Be honest this only ends one way. No peace keeping force will bring peace, no negotiation will settle anything. Arm the rebels, intevene or just standby and watch, its just who dies that changes. If we are to do anything lets at least do it to help the ordinary people in Syria who just want to live in peace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    Without compunction, the Syrian army is going to kill anything and everything that either breathes, walks, crawls or sleeps in a cot or nursery in Homs, that`s the nature of evil. The savagery is beyond the comprehension of any civilised mind to take in, and it will happen, compliments of low life giving the green light to the Syrian gov. at the UN vote. Give them the arms for a fighting chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    We seem to get confused in the US & UK between 'peace keeping force' & imposing our views militarily on another country & trying to make them be governed in a way we approve of.
    No wonder we are not wanted in the Middle East! - we need to accept it is for Syria & perhaps other Arab nations to help to solve. All we can do is supply aid where we can & apply sanctions. It's not our place to do more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    I am going to bed.

    For the last 60 years I have watched the US and Western Europe (aka The Free World) impose their views on the poor and the weak and can only agree with Joni Mitchell when she sang "Strong is Wrong"

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    How can readers possibly make analogies with opposition in the UK or other western countries? The key factor here is killing civilians in their homes & in funeral processions- many times more serious than in other Gulf states. No one objects to the reasonable way in which protests are now being controlled in Moscow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    276. cantonboycardiff

    "271 DarwinsGhost
    And their Royal Families have close ties to our own......."

    We live in hope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    260 I'm not for one minute suggesting we don't supply aid, use sanction or anything else at our disposal to try to bring a humanitarian resolution to what is going on in Syria - essentially a civil war.

    But supplying weapons or getting involved in any way militarily? - NO!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    Condemn the violence by all means.
    Then leave them alone.
    This bullying by Willaim and Hilary is going to end badly - the oil price is already at a new all time high.

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    It is war between spirit, The human truth and soul, desire, goddess of hindu's , a hindu will do any thing to please his hindu soul, it has alot of faces, but it is time to get rid of hinduism, racism and follow spirit, the truth among humanity to establish peace among humanity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    271 DarwinsGhost
    And their Royal Families have close ties to our own we couldn't remove a monarchy could we that would set some presidents that would put the willies up Charles and the rest of the Saxacoburgs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    Warmongers, regimechangers, powermonopolists, there is nothing I have to say to you that stands any chance to get past the moderators. Hence I can only say that I wish the Syrian people (all Syrian people well) but if any of you want weapons, then don't expect me to cry for you...

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    We should definitely stay out of Syria. In Libya, Gaddafi was certainly a tyrant but not as bad as the Al-Qaeda linked Islamists who look like taking over. In Egypt, Mubarrak was certainly a tyrant but not as bad as the Al-Qaeda linked Islamists who look like taking over. In Syria, Hassad is certainly a tyrant but not as bad as the Al-Qaeda linked Islamists who would certainly take over!

  • Comment number 273.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    Maybe after the Syrian rebels are armed, the Russians and the Chinese will arm rebels in Bahrain. What's that? They sell us cheap oil & the US 5th fleet's based there...... Oh, never mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    265. cantonboycardiff

    "Funny how we ignore Sunni Minority Governments in the Arab peninsular killing and torturing their Shia majority population yet we decide that a secular dictator who has the support of the minority"

    Remember that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE buy weapons worth £100 of millions from the UK, while Syria buys its weapons from Russia

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    Well, Bahrain is home to the US Navy's fifth fleet, so they want to keep their pompous monarchy in place there at all costs. They will even enlist the aid of their Gulf buddies to send troops in to crush the protests.
    Bit rich the Arab league asking Assad to stand down. Which one of these freemasons are democratically elected?

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    how many people have to die in order for Assad to go? the moment he ordered his troops to shoot he lost every legitimacy to run his country and Russia cannot stand by and used its veto to prop up a dictator.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    I think the very threat of seriously supplying arms,wth maybe only one shipment could be enough.
    This not so much to overthrow the regime but to force them to stop the shelling & allow free Red Cross entry everywhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    hindu leaders of the west and Arabia, needs to bring hindu Bush and other hindu leaders of the west must be held accountable in court of La. The truth for their hinduism against Innocent of the the world and than lecture others for human rights, Wolfs of the Jungle have no right to lecture others for self scribes hindu rights and illegality labeled as western democracy.


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