Foreign secretary says no decision made to arm opposition to President Assad, but insists it can be done in containable way
William Hague has tried to assure a sceptical British public that arming the Syrian rebels could be done in a containable way that prevented military equipment falling into the hands of extremist elements in the Syrian opposition.
The foreign secretary reiterated on Monday that no decision to arm the rebels had been made, but described the conflict as “the worst human tragedy of our times and on a trajectory to get worse”.
Both Hague and David Cameron are fighting a three-way battle to win over sceptics in their own party, the coalition and G8 leaders and persuade them that further steps are necessary to help the opposition.
It is not clear if either the prime minister or the US president, Barack Obama, will set out the specific help they intend to give the rebels, but it is likely that Britain will focus on providing technical help in the short term. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, is opposed to sending arms, refusing to liken the conflict to the liberation of Libya.
Hague and Cameron argue that a militarily strengthened Syrian opposition is more likely to force supporters of President Bashar al-Assad back to the negotiating table.
Hague, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, insisted arms need not fall into the wrong hands. “We are currently sending equipment that saves lives and who are we sending that to? Well, we are sending it to those more moderate, more sensible elements of the opposition. Obviously, we’re not sending it to extremist groups, to groups that we’re very concerned about, that could become a terrorist threat.
“The equipment we have supplied so far is not arms, but we have no evidence that that has fallen into the wrong hands in any sense and we have been supplying it for some time, so bear that in mind,” he said.
Hague argued that a military victory for either side would mean the collapse of the Syrian state.
Admitting that no option was palatable, he said it was the responsibility of the British government to work through the difficult political and diplomatic solutions.
“Our fear is we’re only going to get a political solution to this crisis if the opposition – the moderate, sensible parts of the opposition – can’t be destroyed and therefore they do need assistance of various kinds.”
He said Britain currently provided the likes of water purification kits, communications equipment and body armour.
He warned that the civil war could spread into a wider conflagration across the Middle East: “We shouldn’t rule any option out because who knows how serious this crisis will become, how it will develop over the coming months, or indeed years. This has now been going on for nearly two and a half years, so we really shouldn’t be in the business of ruling out any options and there are no palatable options.”
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, described elements of the Syrian opposition as maniacs. He said some fighting the Assad regime were “odious, twisted, hate-filled thugs; arrogant and inadequate creeps, intoxicated by the pathetic illusion of power that comes with guns”.
“They are fighting not for freedom but for a terrifying Islamic state in which they would have the whip hand – and yet there is no dodging or fudging the matter: these are among the Syrian rebels who are hoping now to benefit from the flow of western arms.
“We can’t use Syria as an arena for geopolitical point-scoring or muscle-flexing, and we won’t get a ceasefire by pressing weapons into the hands of maniacs.”
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has effectively described some of the opposition as cannibals.
Hague, who is also on the interventionist wing of the Conservative party, said: “It’s also not easy to take a decision to allow people to be killed who are faced by much superior arms and who may be driven to radicalism and extremism by being placed in the situation, so it’s a classic dilemma.”
He said it was possible to distinguish between the moderate and extreme elements of the opposition. “There certainly are extremists. The complexity of this situation is there’s more than two sides and there is an opposition. I’ve had many meetings with opposition leaders who are not that type of opposition leader, who are sincere – in my view and the view of John Kerry and many other western foreign ministers – about their commitment to a future democracy in Syria, to dealing with the stockpiles of chemical weapons, to making sure that minorities are properly represented and not persecuted in Syria.
“Their commitment to that is sincere so we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking everybody on every side is an extremist. There are a lot of good Syrians, I can assure you.”
Cameron has also refused to give ground despite the swelling opposition on his own backbenches.
He said: “I am as worried as anybody else about elements of the Syrian opposition who are extremists, who support terrorism, who are a great danger to our world. The question is what do we do about that. My argument is that we shouldn’t accept that the only alternative to Assad is terrorism and violence; we should be on the side of Syrians who want a democratic and peaceful future for their country and one without the man who is currently using chemical weapons against them.
“This crisis is getting worse … it is destabilising neighbouring countries, about 100,000 people have been killed, millions are homeless, so this is not something that we can ignore but it d