March 6, 2013 9:33 pm

UK to train Syrian rebels

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Britain announced on Wednesday that it would train Syrian rebels in the tactics they must use to hold territory seized from the Assad regime, as the country’s armed opposition made a fresh plea for EU governments to drop an arms embargo that has prevented weapons reaching the rebels.

In a statement to parliament, William Hague, UK foreign secretary, said that Britain, like the US, was not yet offering weapons to the rebel forces but that recent changes to the EU arms embargo meant London could now provide “technical assistance” to the rebels.

This would include “assistance, advice and training on how to maintain security in areas no longer controlled by the regime” and on “how to maintain security during a transition”, Mr Hague said.

However, in Brussels, Salim Idriss, chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army warned that opposition forces urgently needed weapons.

“If we don’t receive the necessary arms and munitions, the conflict will drag on – how much longer, I cannot say,” Mr Idriss told reporters. “One thing is certain: that the country will be completely destroyed.”

Although the UK has stepped up pressure in recent weeks to lift the embargo, most other EU governments are reluctant, with many expressing concerns that more weapons could encourage violence or possibly fall into the hands of extremists.

British officials emphasised on Wednesday that UK support for the rebels was at the start of a new phase. The country pledged to provide non-lethal equipment for rebel forces, including armoured four-wheel drive vehicles and personal protection equipment such as body armour.

It will also provide testing equipment to the opposition to help in gathering evidence in the event of chemical weapons being used by the regime.

The foreign secretary’s comments are the latest indication that the UK and US may now be directly training rebel fighters at unnamed locations in the Middle East.

Last week, US media reported senior administration officials saying that Washington was setting up a training mission for the rebels at an unspecified base in the Middle East.

A British official said last Thursday that there appeared to be “a new attitude” on Syria in Washington and that the Obama administration was prepared to give assistance to the rebels behind the scenes.

“There is a general sense that the US now wants to do a lot more in what you would call the technical assistance space,” said the British official.

Mr Idriss argued that the current policy was one-sided because Iran and Russia were still supplying Syrian government forces with weapons. “We, therefore, are suffering the effects of the embargo without any means to defend ourselves and that is resulting in more deaths.”

He also sought to give assurance that his staff tightly monitored arms and guaranteed that any provided by western governments would be returned after the fighting. “If you give us 10 rifles, we will return 10 rifles, and you can be sure of that,” he said.

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