Foreign office official suggests Syrian opposition has insisted on getting access to arms before agreeing to enter talks
All sides in the Syrian conflict have access to weapons “except the good guys,” according to the official in charge of handling Britain’s response to the crisis in Syria.
Reza Afshar, head of the Syria team at the foreign office, publicly revealed for the first time how important weapons had become to Britain’s private bargaining with the Syrian opposition. Afshar suggested the opposition had insisted on getting access to arms before they agree to enter talks with the Assad regime.
Speaking at a meeting in the Commons, he said: “We are trying to get the opposition to get involved in a negotiation with people they really don’t want to negotiate with. The political reality is that in order to get them to the table we need to amend the arms embargo. It is that simple. They need an incentive.”
Afshar defended Britain’s attempts to lift an EU arms embargo against Syria by claiming that the current restrictions were pushing Syria towards extremism. On Tuesday a video showing a rebel commander apparently biting the heart or lung of a dead government soldier raised more doubts about western backing of the Syrian opposition.
Afshar suggested that arms could be delivered to groups vetted against extremism and such abuses. “Everyone is getting arms except the good guys … It means that people are becoming more and more radicalised,” he said.
“Those people who are on the extreme end of the spectrum are winning out. They are able to provide security and services in areas where there is a vacuum. And the good guys can’t. It is making the situation worse. I’m not saying that the answer to that is necessarily throwing a bunch of arms in there, but I am saying it is not as simple as saying, ‘You don’t want to add fuel to the fire.'”
Afshar was addressing a Commons briefing on the humanitarian crisis in Syria hosted by Islamic Relief and the Council for Arab-British Understanding. Oxfam’s Richard Stanforth said the relief agency was concerned that providing more arms to Syriawould worsen the humanitarian crisis and lead to more human rights abuses.
Responding to those concerns, Afshar said: “Why is it that the opposition want us to amend the embargo? It is so they feel that there is another alternative out there. So that maybe they can sit at the table knowing that they have some more levers.
“You have to look at the context around you and use those levers and press those buttons. It doesn’t sound nice, and you may not like it, but that’s the reality.
British and French attempts to lift the embargo have prompted a fierce debate within the EU. said arming the Syrian opposition would violate international law.
Afshar, who was previously head of the UK mission to the UN in the run-up to military intervention in Libya, also revealed the frustration among diplomats with Russia over Syria.
He said it was disingenuous of Russia to cite events in Libya as an excuse for inaction in Syria.
Afshar said: “Our aim is to galvanise the international community into finding a solution to the Syria crisis. That has eluded us until now because the international system broke down after Libya completely.
“We did what we did in Libya and we acted very fast and decisively. Post Libya we tried to move very quickly with an international response to the Syria crisis and it broke down – and the Russians won’t hide from the way they feel about this – because they wanted to insist that we never do what we did again in Libya.
“They created this sense that they somehow had the wool pulled over their eyes. I was there just before we all voted on Libya and I can tell you for a fact that we all explained precisely what was involved when we passed that resolution and the military action that would come after that. Everyone involved, including the Russians, knew full well what they were getting into. But they have used that since as a kind of geopolitical tool.
“Unfortunately that has meant that Syria has suffered as a result. The question since then has been how do you still influence the crisis when the international tools that you would usually use are broken? That’s what we are all struggling with.”
However, Afshar suggested a US-Russian deal to host an international conference on Syria could represent a turning point.
“In the last two weeks we have made a mini breakthrough,” he said, “but I wouldn’t suggest it is going to be the answer. It is going to be a long difficult process that is going to take a lot of effort.”