Britain cannot afford just to “sit on the sidelines” and watch the slaughter continue in Syria, Foreign Secretary William Hague said yesterday.
• William Hague refuses to rule out combat support for Syrian rebels as he calls President Bashar Assad “delusional”
• Comments come in wake of interview of Syrian leader denouncing “naive, confused and unrealistic” Britain
He refused to rule out the prospect that Britain could arm the Syrian rebels, despite a warning from president Bashar al-Assad that supplying weaponry to the opposition could ignite a conflict across the Middle East.
Mr Hague – who is set to announce further non-lethal assistance to the rebels later this week – dismissed the Syrian leader as “delusional”.
He said the UK would continue to step up support for the opposition as long as there was no diplomatic or political breakthrough in the two-year long conflict.
He added: “The longer this goes on the greater the danger that extremism takes hold, the greater the danger of destabilising neighbouring countries, and the greater the extreme humanitarian distress involved. So we cannot just sit on the sidelines and watch this.”
“We will be doing more and we will have to steadily do more if there is no diplomatic or political breakthrough. The situation in Syria now is too dangerous to the peace and security of that entire region and thereby to the world to ignore it.
“I don’t rule anything out for the future. If this is going to go on for months or years and more tens of thousands of people are going to die and countries like Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan are going to be destabilised it is not something we can ignore. These are the reasons why we can’t just sit it out in Syria.”
Mr Hague said Britain had not wanted to supply arms to the rebels because of the danger they could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists, but he said that could change.
“These things are a balance of risk. You can reach the point eventually and the loss of life is so great that you have to do something new to save lives,” he said.
His comments came after Mr Assad used an interview to denounce Britain’s “naive, confused and unrealistic” approach to the conflict.
He said: “We do not expect an arsonist to be a firefighter. To be frank, Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades, some say for centuries...
“The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of bullying and hegemony… How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarise the problem?
“How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supply to the terrorists?”
Mr Hague said Mr Assad appeared to have been convinced by his inner circle that the uprising against him was the result of an international conspiracy which had nothing to do with the Syrian people.
He added: “I think this will go down as one of the most delusional interviews that any national leader has given in modern times.”
Mr Assad indicated that he was ready to hold peace talks to end a conflict that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives.
He said: “We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms. We are not going to deal with terrorists who are determined to carry weapons, to terrorise people, to kill civilians, to attack public places or private enterprise and to destroy the country.”