LONDON (Reuters) - Britain cannot rule out providing arms to Syrian rebels in the future, although a new aid package it will announce this week will consist only of non-lethal assistance, Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Sunday.
Western countries have so far shied away from arming the rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad, despite their firm diplomatic backing for efforts to remove him.
Reuters and other news media have reported fighters getting increasingly large shipments of arms through Turkey and Jordan in recent months, with funding for those weapons believed to come from wealthy Arab states, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Washington said on Thursday it would provide non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels to bolster their popular support. The package is expected to include medical supplies, food and $60 million. New U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday he believed giving only “non-lethal support” was correct.
Britain has in the past also offered non-lethal aid to the rebels, such as radios, body armor and medical supplies. Hague is set to make an announcement to parliament this week about more aid, but told BBC television it would not include weapons.
“I will not be announcing this week arms to the Syrian opposition,” he said in an interview. “I don’t rule out anything for the future.
“If this is going to go on for months or years ... and countries like Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan are going to be destabilized, it’s not something we can ignore,” Hague added.
“You can reach the point eventually where humanitarian need is so great and the loss of life so great that you have to do something new in order to save lives.”
Hague has previously said Britain was keeping its options open in Syria, and the Foreign Office said his remarks on Sunday were not intended to signal a shift in policy.
Nevertheless, the question of whether the West will shift to explicit military support is being closely watched at a time when more non-lethal aid is being pledged and Syrian opposition leaders are trying to demonstrate to foreign backers that they can curb the influence of Islamist radicals in their ranks.
In a televised interview with the Sunday Times newspaper shown in London late on Saturday, Assad said Britain’s involvement in the Syria crisis was naive and unrealistic.
“How can we expect them (Britain) to make the violence less when they want to send military supplies to the terrorists?” Assad said in the interview.
Hague dismissed Assad’s remarks as “delusional”.
“This is a man presiding over this slaughter. The message to him is: ‘We, Britain, are the people sending food and shelter and blankets to help people driven from their homes and families in his name’,” Hague said.
Iran, Assad’s main ally, also criticized the West for pledging more aid to fighters.
“The announcement of more help for terrorists by political authorities is a big mistake and they will soon see the results,” said Revolutionary Guards commander Brigadier-General Massoud Jazayeri, state news agency IRNA reported on Sunday.
“Some European countries and America who are causing the chaos in Syria will be targeted heavily by these same terrorists. Links between them show that this is a precursor to transferring the agitation from Syria to other places,” he said.
Nearly two years of war in Syria has killed 70,000 people and driven millions from their homes. The opposition made major military gains in the second half of 2012 and now controls substantial territory, but is still outgunned by Assad’s forces.
Western countries have been loath to arm the fighters, in part because many groups have links to Islamist militants and are seen by the West as potentially dangerous renegades.
In recent months the opposition has set up a unified military command, which rebels have told Reuters is distributing arms and cash sent by foreign backers to units that assure their loyalty, as a way of reining in Islamists.
Hague said he would seek a diplomatic breakthrough during talks with his Russian counterpart, but had little hope for now. Moscow has supported Assad and says his exit from power should not be a pre-condition for a negotiated settlement.
“The Russian foreign minister will be here in London in the next 10 days and of course we will have another major discussion about Syria to see whether we can make some diplomatic breakthrough, but there is no sign of that at the moment, hence we have to do more to try to protect civilian lives in Syria.”
Additional reporting by Marcus George in Dubai; Editing by Peter Graff