LONDON: Britain says it will provide armoured vehicles, body armour and search-and-rescue equipment to Syria’s opposition — but is still stopping short of arming the country’s rebels.
Foreign Secretary William Hague says Britain is broadening its assistance to include “all forms of technical assistance to the Syrian National Coalition,” including electricity repair and water purification equipment and testing equipment for chemical weapons.
Hague told lawmakers in the House of Commons on Wednesday that the measures are “a necessary, proportionate and lawful response to a situation of extreme humanitarian suffering.”
But he said Britain is sticking to the current European Union sanctions against Syria, which include an arms embargo that prevents weapons being funnelled to rebels fighting President Bashar Al Assad.
Hague warned that Britain and the European Union must be ready to take further steps if no political solution to the crisis is found.
“In our view if a political solution to the crisis in Syria is not found and the conflict continues, we and the rest of the European Union will have to be ready to move further, and we should not rule out any option for saving lives,” Hague said.
Meanwhile, the chief of staff of the rebel army in Syria came to Brussels on Wednesday to plead with the international community to supply it with arms and ammunition so it can resist attacks by the regime.
General Salim Idris, head of the rebel’s Supreme Military Council, said anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles are urgently needed to protect the civilian population.
Idris complained that Russia and Iran are helping the Assad regime, while the West condemns Assad but does not supply the rebels with weapons.
“When we don’t have enough weapons, when we don’t have enough ammunition, the regime still considers itself powerful, and it continues killing,” he told the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, a political grouping in the European Parliament.
“If we have the arms and munitions we need, we can get rid of the regime within a month,” Idris said. “We’re making real progress. A great deal of the east of the country has been liberated.”
Separately, General James Mattis, the head of the US military’s Central Command painted a daunting portrayal of events on the ground in Syria, where he said the situation was too complex at this point for him to support arming rebels battling Assad’s regime.
“We don’t want to inadvertently, with the best of intentions, arm people who are basically sworn enemies,” he said before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“The collapse of the Assad regime, sir, would be biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years,” Mattis said in response to a question from Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
Asked by Reed whether the United States would plan for that scenario explicitly, Mattis responded: “And we are, Senator.”
Mattis said “quiet planning” was also underway with regional allies for potential stability operations if needed after the Syrian regime’s collapse, and pointed to regional organizations like the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as groups “that may be able to take this on.”
“We are doing some planning with the regional militaries and getting basically a framework for what this would look like,” he said.
Still, Mattis said the situation in Syria remained “fundamentally unpredictable,” even though Assad’s power base and geographic area of control were eroding.