POLITICS

Arming Syria Rebels And UK Vetoing EU Arms Embargo Would 'Fan Flames Of Conflict' Says Labour

13/03/2013 16:30 GMT | Updated 13/03/2013 19:44 GMT

David Cameron's suggestion that the coalition might veto the EU-wide arms embargo on Syria in order to supply anti-Assad rebels with weapons appears to have split the House of Commons on party lines.

Whilst politicians of all parties are united in calling for Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, to stand down, Labour has so far been keen to continue on with the current course of sanctions and diplomatic action.

Ministers, however, are growing increasingly frustrated with this position, as the violence continues inside Syria and tens of thousands of refugees flee the country.

david cameron

Prime minister David Cameron looks into Syria from the Jordanian border near the Al Wahdah dam

Last week foreign secretary, William Hague, revealed Britain would step up assistance to the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) by providing armoured vehicles and body armour.

This, combined with sanctions and diplomatic negotiations, appears to the government's preferred route - for now.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for David Cameron said: "His [Cameron's] strong preference is to continue with an EU wide approach," he said.

But if an EU-wide consensus cannot be reached the government "has never ruled out going further," he added.

Breaking an EU embargo would be unprecedented and possibly leave the UK vulnerable to penalties - but Cameron could simply play a waiting game in order to overcome this.

Damian Chalmers, professor of European Union law at the London School of Economics (LSE), told the Huffington Post UK: "The original embargo had a sunset provision. It was only to last until 1 March 2013.

"This was extended until 1st June after which member states can supply arms to whom they want.

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"It is not clear that the UK would be alone on this, it is worth noting. The French position is not so different."

syrian rebels

The UK and America are already involved in training some Syrian opposition forces in Jordan

Supplying weapons, however, would be a big step up with a number of possible unintended consequences.

Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, has warned that arming the rebels would be an escalation which could "fan the flames of conflict."

Writing in the Guardian he says: "The country today is awash with arms and it is impossible to guarantee the end use of weapons given the lack of clarity about the identity, intent and tactics of some of the rebel forces.

"Only this week the UN suggested that human rights violations are now taking place on both sides of the conflict and that it is turning into a "destructive stalemate".

He adds: "Indeed it is perfectly possible that if Europe were to decide to arm the rebel forces, the Russians would simply increase their supply of arms to the Assad regime."

syria war

Opposition rebels face stiff resistance from a well armed Syrian army

The situation differs starkly to the lead up to the military intervention in Libya, when Ed Miliband made a speech to the Commons pledging his support for the coalition's policy.

Together with shadow secretary of state for defence, Jim Murphy, Miliband made a strong case for intervention to protect the people of Benghazi from Colonel Gaddafi's forces.

Indeed, this united stance has permeated most foreign affairs issues - including Afghanistan and Mali - since the coalition came to power.

The current split is reflected across Europe with France saying it wants more freedom to help the rebels, while Germany is concerned that easing the embargo would merely cause more bloodshed.

This week marks the second anniversary of the start of the Syrian uprising.

Since then an estimated 70,000 people have been killed and a million refugees have fled, many of whom now reside in squalid camps just over the border in neighbouring countries.

syria refugees

Winter conditions in the refugee camps have been atrocious

The need for action is clear yet geo-political manoeuvring prevents the formation of a unified position from the international community, leaving the Syrian regime free to crush poorly armed and poorly organised opposition forces.

Russia and China continue to refuse to fall behind the rest of the UN Security Council in denouncing Assad.

China has extensive trade relations with Syria whilst Russia has a naval base in Tartus, strategically vital as the country's only point of access to the Mediterranean.

William Hague met with Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on Wednesday afternoon hoping to gain support for the UK stance on the conflict.

Lavrov, who last week insisted there was "absolutely" no chance of Russia telling Assad to step down, claimed any attempt by the UK to arm Syrian rebels would be "a violation of international law".

Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond disagreed, making clear that nothing was ruled out in terms of arming the rebels.

"We have never ruled out anything in the future," Hague said, adding it wasn't clear how grave the situation would become.

"Anything we do will be legal and clearly stated to our country and to the international community."