Britain Said to Step Back From Push to Arm Syrian Rebels

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LONDON -- After leading a determined push with France to remove legal hindrances to arming Syria's rebels, Britain is apparently signaling a more cautious approach, even as British newspaper reports say Prime Minister David Cameron has retreated from the idea altogether.

The reluctance reflects a similar attitude in Washington toward the idea of sending small weaponry to the splintered Syrian insurgents, raising broader questions about the destiny of the rebels as the flow of battle turns against them.

From the moment in late May when Britain and France persuaded their reluctant partners in the European Union to lift an embargo on arms supplies to Syria, British officials have hedged on when arms shipments might begin.

"While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria," Foreign Secretary William Hague said at the time, "it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate and worsen."

Arguably, from the rebel and Western standpoint, the situation has significantly worsened: support for President Bashar al-Assad by allies like Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah has enabled him to slow and gradually reverse the rebel campaign to oust him, which initially drew unequivocal Western and Arab rhetorical support.

As the momentum has swung toward loyalist forces, moreover, divisions among the insurgents have deepened, prompting increased Western concerns that weapons supplied to the opposition could end up in the hands of anti-Assad Islamist fighters aligned with Al Qaeda.

British newspaper reports on Monday said British military commanders had advised Mr. Cameron that there was no purpose to be served by sending small arms, since such modest arms supplies were unlikely to sway the outcome of the conflict, which is now in its third year.

British officials declined to confirm the reports that Mr. Cameron had abandoned the idea of arming the rebels, saying that since no formal decision had been made to send weapons in the first place, it was not clear how he could be cast as retreating from it.

France also insisted that its position had not changed.

"There's been no step back," a French diplomat said on Tuesday, and the French have been in close consultation with their British counterparts on the question of possible arms deliveries.

France, which has provided nonmilitary aid to Syrian rebel groups for months, has long said that it will not provide weaponry unless it can be sure that its arms will not strengthen Islamist fighters, the diplomat noted, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter in public. "This is an essential condition," the diplomat said.

On Monday, The Daily Telegraph, a conservative British newspaper, said senior military figures had "warned the prime minister that with the momentum on the side of President Assad's regime sending small arms and missiles is unlikely to make a difference."

At the same time, the newspaper said, "more significant military intervention, such as introducing a no-fly zone over Syria, could mire Britain in a conflict for months because of the strength" of the Syrian government's antiaircraft weapons systems.

The thinking offered a sharp contrast with Britain's muscular military actions for more than a decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya in close coordination with the United States.

In June, the Obama administration said that it, too, planned to deliver arms and ammunition to the Syrian rebels in the hope of reversing the tide of war. But in recent days, American and Middle Eastern officials have suggested that the administration's plans are far more limited than they initially appeared.

The caution raised questions about the rebels' ability to withstand the advances by government forces.

In an interview published in The Daily Telegraph on Monday, Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the insurgent Free Syrian Army, said: "What are our friends in the West waiting for? For Iran and Hezbollah to kill all the Syrian people?"

Without Western arms supplies to so-called moderate insurgents under his command, he said, "soon there will be no Free Syrian Army to arm. The Islamic groups will take control of everything, and this is not in the interests of Britain."

Scott Sayare contributed reporting from Paris.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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