Britain can give military support to Syrian rebels after EU changes

EU sanctions to allow greater assistance but opponents of Assad say they need more from the international community

Britain and its allies will be able to provide training for rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime and supply them with military support, including armoured cars, under major changes which are due to be made to European Union sanctions rules on Syria.

Political agreement has already been reached in Brussels on a UK proposal to allow the dispatch of “non-lethal” aid to the revolutionaries. Steps to protect civilians with a formal declaration are expected by the end of the week, The Independent understands.

Assurances that help was on its way will be made to the Syrian Opposition Council at a meeting of the Friends of Syria – a coalition which includes the US, Britain, Germany and France – in Rome tomorrow. Its leader, Moaz Khatib, had threatened to boycott the talks in protest at Western inaction, and agreed to attend only after a personal plea from the US Secretary of State, John Kerry.

The changes to the EU embargo – which will also allow items such as body armour and advanced communications systems to be sent – are expected to be for a trial period of three months.

Despite the potential support from the West, last night some activists insisted that non-lethal assistance was pointless. Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Opposition Council, said: “What Syrians need is lethal assistance that [will] shift the balance of power. Body armour... will not bring this conflict to an end. This is the last chance for the international community to show commitment. Every time we go and all we get is talk.”

Senior diplomatic sources stress Britain has not decided what equipment it will dispatch, or whether it will become involved in training fighters. But having the legal framework to take such action would, it is felt, be of immense value as President Assad’s forces continue their brutal assault. Recent Scud attacks in Aleppo killed around 140 people, while close to a million Syrians have fled across borders.

The EU meeting in Brussels last week rejected a request from British Foreign Secretary William Hague to alter the rules to allow weapons to be sent to the rebels. The Assad regime has, by contrast, continued to receive arms from Russia and Iran. The intention had been to help, in particular, “moderate” rebel groups which have been handicapped while bands of increasingly powerful extremist Islamist fighters have been receiving supplies from their backers in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

But the move ran into opposition from, among others, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and countries including Germany and Spain. “There is no lack of weapons in Syria, rather the contrary. More arms will mean more deaths,” said Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister.

However, the meeting agreed to provide more non-lethal support and technical assistance to protect civilians. The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, whose government had supported the UK initiative, said non-lethal support was an “easier” compromise, but refused to elaborate on the type of technical assistance London and Paris will consider.

It has been reported that the US is also considering supplying the rebels with body armour and armoured cars, and is planning to send them humanitarian assistance directly, rather than via aid agencies.

This would represent a significant change of tack. Last year Barack Obama rejected calls to arm the rebels from his then Secretaries of State and Defence, Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, as well as David Petraeus, the former head of the CIA, as he believed the arms  would fall into the hands of jihadists.

Mr Kerry said in London this week: “We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind, wondering where the support is. We are not coming to Rome simply to talk.” US officials said, however, that the focus was still on a negotiated settlement, with President Assad stepping down.

Mr Kerry met the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, on Tuesday for talks the Kremlin described as “constructive”. Russia has offered to stage face to face talks between Syria and the opposition, proposed by the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Mouallem.

Mr Lavrov accused the rebels of failing to grasp the chance for peace: “We spoke about it during our meeting [with Mr Kerry]. We count that the opposition... will also speak in favour of the dialogue. We will try to ensure that [the talks] can start as soon as possible.”

Going into today’s meeting Mr Saleh said the opposition has three main demands: the lifting of arms embargoes to allow the provision of defensive equipment; further political recognition for the coalition, including allowing it to open international consulates; and increasing the flow of humanitarian aid.

Arms continue to be shipped to the rebels through clandestine channels. Weaponry, much of it left over from the Yugoslav civil war, is reportedly being sent from Croatia, paid for, supposedly, by Saudi Arabia.

The battle for Syria

Aleppo

17-24 February

More than 140 people, including 70 children, are killed in a single week by a series of Syrian army missiles fired into the embattled city of Aleppo. Witnesses describe the destruction of up to 20 buildings in the strikes, all of which hit residential areas that reportedly contained no military installations. Syrian warplanes carried out air strikes on rebel fighters trying to storm a police academy on the outskirts of the city and in the past three days around 40 rebels and 50 regime troops have been killed.

Damascus

21 February

53 people are killed and 230 injured by a huge car bomb outside the Ba'ath party headquarters in central Damascus. Government news agency Sana blames "America, Zionism and some Gulf states" for the "terrorist" attack, which also damages the Russian embassy. The Free Syrian Army denies responsibility and blames the regime. The attack is the largest in the centre of the capital since the start of the civil war, which has largely been fought away from Damascus.

Refugees

The flood of refugees fleeing Syria has spiralled in the last few months to the point that as many as 5,000 people a day are leaving the country. The UN estimates almost 250,000 Syrians are now in Jordan, 200,000 in Lebanon and more than 180,000 in Turkey. According to Oxfam, the UN's worst-case scenario of one million refugees having fled Syria by June is likely to be realised "within weeks". Internally, two million Syrians have been displaced by the conflict.

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