Syrian opposition hold ‘encouraging’ talks with UK Government

Syrians step on President Bashar al-Assad's portraint. Picture: Getty
Syrians step on President Bashar al-Assad's portraint. Picture: Getty
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EUROPEAN nations are considering overturning an arms embargo on Syria, Foreign Secreatry William Hague said yesterday, in a move that could allow rebels access to imported weapons.

• Syrian National Coalition meet with William Hague in London

• Hague is first European leader to meet the opposition group

• Shadow Foreign Secretary calls on Government to recognise Coalition

Mr Hague met leaders of the Syrian National Coalition in London, saying he was “encouraged” by the talks and would like to recognise the group as the official opposition.

Britain has so far insisted it will not supply weapons to the rebels, but Mr Hague confirmed there had been talks over whether a European Union arms embargo could be lifted. The issue is likely to be discussed at a meeting of European foreign ministers on Monday.

Since May 2011, the EU has imposed a ban on the export of weapons and equipment to Syria which could be used for “internal repression.”

In July, the EU asked members to stop and inspect any ships or aircraft bound for Syria that they suspect could be carrying arms.

France has already raised the possibility of sending “defensive weapons” to Syria’s rebels – although Russia, which has backed president Bashar al-Assad’s regime by vetoing action at the United Nations Security Council, has warned that such a move would violate international law.

However, a senior EU official said yesterday that if an arms embargo against Syria was restructured to allow arms to go to rebels but not to the regime, it would be very difficult to police. For that reason, the EU is unlikely to change the embargo, the official claimed.

Mr Hague was the first European leader to meet the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which was formed from Syria’s disparate opposition groups at a meeting in Doha last week.

In a statement at the Foreign Office in London, Mr Hague said they had had a “detailed discussion” about the coalition’s next steps.

“The formation of the coalition is a very encouraging development and I’m further encouraged by the discussions I’ve had with them this morning,” he said.

“It’s important and I’ve stressed to them that they respect minority rights, that they are inclusive of all communities in Syria, committed to a democratic future for the people of Syria, that in the face of a regime that has committed such abuse, violence and rape against the people of their own country that this coalition stands firmly against all of those things, that they uphold high standards of human rights, of international humanitarian law, preventing sexual violence, preventing abuse of prisoners.

“These things are very important to their future and to international support for them. I’m encouraged by their response to that.”

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said: “Recent progress made in Doha towards agreeing a formal plan to unite the Syrian opposition is a welcome development. Divisions among the Syrian opposition have for too long hindered progress towards agreeing an inclusive transitional plan for a post-Assad Syria.

“The newly formed Syrian National Coalition represents a real opportunity to overcome this impasse.

“The time has come for the UK to do what France and now Turkey has already done and officially recognise the Syrian National Coalition as the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.

“The correct focus for the UK’s efforts in the days ahead must be helping unify the Syrian opposition, not helping arm the Syrian opposition. We should be working not to escalate the conflict but to de-escalate it.”

Coalition president Sheikh Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib and vice-presidents Suheir Atassi and Riad Seif led the rebel delegation at the London meeting, which will see officials from a raft of international nations working together to find ways of giving the group practical support.

Mr Hague said the coalition leaders committed to reach out to all groups in Syria and to respect human rights.

“I hope that this meeting will mark a turning point for the Syrian people and that it will begin the major steps towards a political transition in Syria,” he said.

“So I’m encouraged by what I’ve heard and seen from the leaders of the coalition and I hope the discussions in London today will bring assistance to tens of thousands of people suffering in Syria.”

The Foreign Secretary said he would be making a further statement in the Commons next week.