News / Middle East

Europe Mulls Increased Support For Syrian Opposition

British Foreign Minister William Hague speaks during a press conference in Moscow, Russia, May 28, 2012.
British Foreign Minister William Hague speaks during a press conference in Moscow, Russia, May 28, 2012.
Selah Hennessy
— Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague met with Syrian opposition leaders in London Friday and said he was encouraged by their discussions. London's meeting comes after France became the first western nation to accept the opposition coalition as the legitimate government-in-exile. European countries are considering new ways to up their assistance to the Syrian opposition.

After initial talks with leaders of the Syrian opposition Friday morning, Hague said talks were positive.  

"I hope that today will mark a turning point for the Syrian people and that it will begin the major steps towards a political transition in Syria," Hague said. "I'm encouraged by what I've heard and seen from the leaders of the coalition and I hope the discussions in London today will bring relief to the tens of thousands of people suffering today in Syria."

Last week in Doha, the Syrian opposition made headway towards forging a united front against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A new coalition was formed, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, headed by a former, cleric Maath al-Khatib.

Before the talks began Friday, Hague told the BBC that London would be deciding in the coming days whether to recognize the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

But first, Hague said, he wanted to get a better gauge of their plans, especially with regard to human rights.  

France has already recognized the coalition as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Syrian people.  And on Thursday France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also discussed lifting the European arms embargo on Syria.

Fabius was speaking on France's RTL radio.

He says for the moment there is an embargo so no arms are being sent from the European side. This issue of military aid, he says, can be raised for "defensive arms" but only with the coordination of other European countries.

David Hartwell is a Middle East expert at the security analyst group IHS Jane's.

He says France's call for providing "defensive weapons" has not specified what arms would fall into that category.

"You could argue that the two major weapons the opposition has been asking for, which are anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft weapons, could be included in that," Hartwell said. "So it's a very cagey, very difficult definition to extend and I think that's the problem will have in selling that to its European partners."

European Union foreign ministers meet Monday in Brussels with Syria likely on the agenda.

So far, Britain and France have been at the forefront in Europe, pushing for closer ties with Syria's opposition.

Analyst Hartwell says most other European nations have been more hesitant, not least because of the economic turmoil plaguing a number of them.

He says it's unlikely a move towards lifting the arms embargo will be made.  

"Lifting the arms embargo would be a fairly major move and it would be one that would court an enormous amount of controversy, especially with the Russians and the Chinese, who may feel that if the EU and Western states are going to begin opening weapons to the opposition then they may feel less constrained in doing so to the government," Hartwell said.

A spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry said Thursday that supplying weapons to the opposition would be a "gross violation" of international law. Russian and Chinese vetoes at the United Nations Security Council have so far blocked U.N. from increased punitive actions against the Syrian government.

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