28 May 2013

By arming Syria’s rebels, is the UK also arming al-Qaeda?

The UK and France are prepared to supply weapons to those fighting to overthrow Syria’s President Assad. But can they arm the Syrian National Council without weapons reaching pro al-Qaeda forces?

Russia responded to the EU decision to lift the embargo on supplying arms to Syria’s opposition by confirming it will go ahead with the delivery of C-300 surface-to-air missiles to the Assad regime.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov called the missiles a “stabilising factor” that could deter “hotheads” from joining the conflict.

Israel and France had urged Russia to refrain from sending the high-precision S-300 missile systems to President Assad’s government.

Russian officials have not disclosed whether S-300s have actually been sent to Syria.

I can’t confirm or deny that these deliveries have taken place. Sergei Rybakov, Russian deputy foreign minister

“I can’t confirm or deny that these deliveries have taken place,” Mr Rybakov said. “We see that this issue worries many of our partners, but we have no basis to review our position in this sphere.”

Moscow also responded to the European Union decision on Monday to lift the arms embargo on Syria, saying it would undermine the chances for a peace conference that Russian and the United States are trying to organise.

“This does direct damage to the prospects for convening the international conference,” Mr Rybakov was reported as saying.

No August deadline

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague had pushed for the relaxation of restrictions and said the EU had made the “right decision”.

Speaking on Monday, Mr Hague stated that Britain did not have to wait until the 1 August meeting of EU foreign ministers before taking a decision to arm Syria’s rebels – but stressed no decision had yet been taken.

There has been some discussion of some sort of August deadline. This is not the case. William Hague, foreign secretary

“I know there has been some discussion of some sort of August deadline. That is not the case,” the foreign secretary said.

He added that Britain was “not excluded” from arming the rebels before August, and that it would not act alone if it chose to do so.

‘Necessary and right’

Following a marathon meeting in Brussels on Monday night, Mr Hague said lifting the embargo was “necessary and right” but insisted that the government’s focus remained on ensuring successful peace talks at Geneva next month and a “political transition” in Syria.

The EU’s arms embargo was due to expire at the end of the month, and talks on agreeing a new common position for the 27 member states appeared to have reached no conclusion.

Mr Hague said: “It was a difficult decision for some countries, but it was necessary and right to reinforce international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria.

“It was important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so.”

‘Flexibility to respond’

He insisted that relaxation of the embargo did not mean that the UK would send arms to the Syrian opposition, “but we now have the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate and if the Assad regime refuses to negotiate,” he added.

“Thousands of lives are at stake in Syria. Our focus remains on efforts to secure a successful outcome at the forthcoming Geneva conference, and a political transition that ends the conflict, allows refugees to return to their homes, and prevents further radicalisation in Syria.”

The EU declaration issued after the meeting said that member states such as the UK, who wished to supply arms, would have to ensure “adequate safeguards against misuse”, including “relevant information concerning the end-user and final destination of the delivery”.

No arms shipments can take place yet but the Foreign Affairs Council will review its position before 1 August on the basis of a report by EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton.

The report will follow consultation with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, on developments in the US-Russia peace initiative and on the engagement of the Syrian parties.