Syria: UK to send support as crisis spirals

Syrian refugees are seen in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi in Hatay province. Picture: Reuters
Syrian refugees are seen in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi in Hatay province. Picture: Reuters
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Britain is to supply armoured vehicles and body armour to Syrian opposition forces as it steps up efforts to end a humanitarian crisis of “catastrophic proportions”, William Hague has said.

The Foreign Secretary yesterday said he had ordered “more active efforts” after securing a relaxation of a European Union arms embargo to allow the provision of non-lethal military equipment to protect civilians.

Testing equipment to provide evidence of any use of chemical weapons by the regime and training for armed groups in international human rights and legal standards are also being supplied.

Mr Hague said £3 million had been allocated this month for the work, with another £10m to follow – urging other countries to do the same.

“The Cabinet is in no doubt that this is a necessary, proportionate and lawful response to a situation of extreme humanitarian suffering, and that there is no practicable alternative,” he said.

“All our assistance will be carefully calibrated and monitored as well as legal, and will be aimed at saving life, alleviating this human catastrophe and supporting moderate groups.”

The announcement came as Arab foreign ministers offered the Syrian opposition coalition the country’s seat at the Arab League on condition that it first forms a representative executive council.

Arab League secretary-general Nabil Elaraby announced the offer to the Syrian National Coalition, the western and Arab-backed opposition umbrella group.

Mr Hague said the UK was also taking advantage of the embargo relaxation to provide assistance, advice and training to the Syrian National Coalition.

Equipment for search and rescue operations and communications will also be sent, along with incinerators, rubbish collection and water purification kits to prevent the spread of disease.

Mr Hague said the UK had fought hard to secure the changes to preserve an EU-wide approach, but cautioned: “We will have to be ready to move further, and we should not rule out any option for saving lives.”

The initiative came as the chief of staff of the rebel army in Syria was in Brussels, urging the international community to supply it with arms and ammunition to help fight the regime of president Assad.

At least 10,000 people have been killed in the brutal civil war in the last two months, Mr Hague said – more than in the whole of the first year since uprisings were brutally suppressed in 2011.

The number in need of humanitarian help inside the country has quadrupled to four million over the past 12 months – almost a fifth of the population – with a million seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said: “Today’s statement by the Foreign Secretary raises more questions than it answers about the most effective way to bring the violence in Syria to an end.

“Syria today is replete with arms. The priority for the British government should be to work to unify the Syrian opposition, not to arm it.”