Britain and France renew efforts to lift arms embargo on Syrian rebels

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Britain and France renew efforts to lift arms embargo on Syrian rebels

Britain and France will renew their attempts to lift the EU arms embargo on the Syrian rebels after western allies accused President Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons.

Members of the free Syrian Army during an attack against Syrian government forces in Aleppo Photo: AP

By Richard Spencer, Istanbul

7:03PM BST 21 Apr 2013

William Hague, the foreign secretary, said the two would take a “strong stance” in talks with EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday. The pledge came after Germany, a major stumbling block to arming the rebels, significantly softened its position on the issue.

Britain wants to widen the range of aid it is sending to the opposition, though it is not considering sending weapons “yet”. “We are in favour of getting more assistance to the Syrian National Council (SNC),” Mr Hague said. “There are many ways in which we can do that.”

The German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said he would accept the lifting of the arms embargo if other countries pushed for it. He said that if “one or two countries” thought there was no risk that arms would fall into the wrong hands, he would “respect” their decision.

Western ministers and opposition leaders met in Istanbul on Sunday and agreed that all aid to the opposition would be channelled through the SNC’s military wing.

The United States also announced a doubling in its aid, from $127 million to $250 million.

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In return, the SNC published a statement of principles that included pledges not to use chemical weapons, to renounce “terrorism and extremism”, and to respect the rights of minorities, including the Alawite sect from which the Assad family comes.

“Our revolution and vision are for all Syrians,” its statement said. “There is no room for sectarianism or discrimination on ethnic, religious, linguistic or any other grounds. Universal human rights principles will apply to all Syrians, men and women.”

Mr Hague last week said there was “credible evidence” of chemical weapons use in Syria, with a number of incidents where diluted chemicals appear to have been deployed.

President Barack Obama has made use of chemical weapons a “red line” which would trigger outside intervention. While officials do not believe that red line has been met in terms of conclusive evidence or scale of use, the western allies made a stronger statement than before on President Assad’s refusal to allow in a United Nations fact-finding mission.

“Such an approach suggests the responsibility of the regime,” said the statement, by the Friends of Syria group in which the UK, US, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are all prominent. “If these allegations are proven to be correct there will be severe consequences.”

Ministers fear the situation inside the country is deteriorating fast, with Syrian regime forces recently making tactical gains in the Damascus suburbs and near the Lebanese border around the town of Qusayr with heavy loss of life.

Rebel activists accused the regime of killing civilians as well as scores of fighters as it swept through the towns of Jdeidat Artouz and Jdeidat al-Fadl near Damascus.

The risk of the war spreading into Syria’s neighbours was highlighted when a rebels accused Lebanon’s Shia militia Hizbollah of fighting alongside Assad troops, and fired shells on Shia towns inside Lebanon in retaliation.

Britain, France and the United States want the rebels to get enough arms to turn the balance of the war, but not so as to win a quick victory, rather wanting them to force President Assad to negotiate a “managed” transition.

“The chances of a political solution at present are negligible,” a western diplomatic source said. “The best way of opening up more chances quickly is changing the balance of power on the ground to put more pressure on the regime.”

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