May 20, 2013 10:03 pm

William Hague hints at veto of Syria arms ban

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Foreign Secretary William Hague gives evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee©PA

William Hague, foreign secretary, declared on Monday that Britain will veto the renewal of the EU arms embargo on Syria next week if member states block moves to allow weapons to be transferred to rebels fighting the Assad regime.

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers next week, Britain and France will call for changes to the embargo that would allow them to transfer weapons to Syrian rebels at a later date, if London and Paris deem it necessary.

The attempt by Britain and France to make these changes is being opposed by a number of states, including Germany and Austria.

However, Mr Hague stated for the first time on Monday that if the amendments are not agreed, the UK will veto a move to allow the existing embargo to continue operating. This would bring the restrictions on all arms transfers from the EU to Syria to an end.

Asked if the UK would consider using its power of veto if the EU failed to reach a consensus, Mr Hague said: “I can say . . . that we are prepared to do that, if necessary, but of course we are looking for agreement with other EU states.”

Following a Commons statement by Mr Hague on the Syria crisis, Labour looked increasingly poised to oppose the transfer of weapons to moderate rebels fighting the Assad regime.

Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary, told Mr Hague: “I believe . . . that the risks of what could be a decade-long sectarian war in Syria, fuelled in part by weapons supplied by the United Kingdom, should give you serious pause for thought before embracing that course.”

Mr Alexander added: “If, as you state, your priority is a negotiated end to the conflict, is contemplating arming the rebels the crucial question?”

Previewing what could be a difficult Commons debate on the issue in the weeks ahead, Mr Hague said: “If we come to a choice about [military intervention], it is a very important foreign policy choice, which of course should be discussed in this House, and a moral choice.”

An aide to Mr Alexander said Labour did not believe the government was under an obligation to hold a formal vote in the Commons to legitimise British arms transfers to the rebels.

But the aide said: “We are opposed to arming the rebels unless the government can provide assurances that they will not end up in the wrong hands, and that this action will help bring about peace more quickly.”

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