Foreign Secretary William Hague branded Bashar al-Assad “delusional” today after the Syrian President accused Britain of fanning the flames of the country’s civil war by attempting to arm the rebels.
Mr Hague also indicated that Britain is likely to bolster its range of support to opposition fighters, a move that has been made possible by recent changes to an EU arms embargo. The Foreign Secretary is expected to announce the new package of non-lethal aid in Parliament this week.
With no diplomatic breakthrough in sight the West has turned its attention to the battlefield, with the US announcing that it would provide food and medical aid directly to opposition fighters for the first time. The changes to the EU arms embargo pave the way for a wider range of defensive support, which may include flak jackets and night-vision goggles.
Britain has lobbied for the arms embargo to be lifted completely, which would leave the door open for arming the opposition in a conflict that is now thought to have claimed more than 70,000 lives and pushed nearly 1 million refugees over the country’s borders.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, President Assad criticised Britain’s “naive, confused and unrealistic” government, dismissing the idea that London could be involved in any negotiated settlement. “We do not expect an arsonist to be a firefighter,” he said. “How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarise the problem? How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supplies to the terrorists?”
Mr Hague returned fire, describing it as “one of the most delusional interviews that any national leader has given in modern times”. He said that although there is no such thing as a “military only” solution to the violence, there is no sign of a diplomatic breakthrough on the horizon.
President Assad has dismissed the prospect of stepping aside, a precondition that many in the opposition have set for any negotiations. Mr Assad said he is willing to talk to rebels, but only if they lay down their weapons.