UK Ready to Discuss Arming Syrian Rebels

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. Photo Courtesy of UN Photo/Mark Garten

This month, the Syrian conflict hit its two-year anniversary—with no end in sight. In two months, the European Union must decide what to do about its arms embargo on the Syrian opposition forces. Those two dates have the UK now asking whether it’s time to start giving lethal weaponry to the Syrian rebels.

On Sunday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the Murnaghan program on Sky News that “as things stand today, there is going to be a strong case as we come towards the end of May, for the lifting of the arms embargo on the national coalition, the opposition or some very serious amendment to the EU arms embargo that allows us to send them more assistance.”

Hague emphasized no decision has been made to arm the rebels and noted that while the UK could bring the united EU arms embargo to an end in May, that’s not what they want to do unless they believe they must.

“We could as the Prime Minister [David Cameron] has made clear, end the EU sanctions regime and pursue our own policies. Now, we would of course, be reluctant to do that but we’ll do that if necessary, if we think it is necessary,” Hague told Sky News host Dermot Murnaghan, according to a transcript of the interview provided on the Sky News website.

The discussion on offering lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition comes as the conflict has resulted in more than 1 million refugees and 70,000 dead. What began as a brutal government crackdown on peaceful protesters in March 2011 has now become a full-blown civil war. Now France and the UK are both discussing openly the prospect of arming the rebels.

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Last week, Cameron made it clear himself that the UK is not prepared to arm the Syrian rebels, but that it’s time to start asking the question publicly. “As things stand today, I’m not saying that Britain would actually like to supply arms to rebel groups,” Cameron told reporters last Friday, according to a transcript from his office.

Cameron said that recent changes to the EU arms embargo that enable the UK to provide more nonlethal, technical assistance are good. “I think we should be asking ourselves the question though, is it right to have an arms embargo that basically still sees a sort of parity in terms of who you help between the regime and the opposition? Is that the right approach?”

“…This debate can now take place amongst the foreign ministers. I hope that a good common position can be achieved, but I think the French and British arguments are very strong about why we need to argue for changes in order to make sure that we speed up the transition process in Syria.”

Last week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle noted that Germany too is prepared to have the discussion on doing more for the Syrian opposition. “Two weeks ago we modified the European sanctions against Syria in the light of recent developments,” Westerwelle said in a statement from his office.

“If major partners in the European Union believe the situation there has changed and the sanctions once again need modifying accordingly, we are obviously ready to discuss this in the EU immediately.”

(By Joshua Spurlock,, March 17, 2013)