UK Politics

Syria conflict: William Hague to meet opposition leaders

Free Syrian Army fighters firing weapons
Image caption Aid agencies estimate that hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting

The UK is considering whether to officially recognise the newly unified Syrian opposition, sources say.

Foreign Secretary William Hague is to meet leaders of the group in London on Friday to discuss the "grave and worsening" situation in Syria.

The US and the UK have both signalled support for the coalition but stopped short of recognising it as a government-in-exile.

But Mr Hague said the UK's work with this group was a "high priority".

Earlier this week, France became the first Western power to recognise Syria's opposition coalition as the "sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people".

Britain's foreign secretary said he wanted to ask the Syrian opposition leaders about "their way forward".

But he identified a need for the rebels "to win over the middle ground of opinion in Syria, to work effectively together, to be inclusive, to respect human rights, to have a clear plan for political transition in Syria".

The foreign secretary said he would give further details on the UK government's "views and intentions with regard to the conflict in Syria" in a statement to Parliament next week.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson said the UK was considering whether to officially recognise the Syrian opposition - a decision could be made next week. It was also working to lift the EU embargo which prevents the supply of arms to the rebels fighting President Assad's forces.

'Defensive arms'

Mr Hague was speaking after a meeting of the National Security Council, chaired by Prime Minister David Cameron, where the ongoing violence in Gaza and southern Israel was also on the agenda.

The prime minister, his deputy Nick Clegg, Chancellor George Osborne and the foreign and defence secretaries are understood to have attended the meeting.

Among the options thought to have been discussed was a no-fly zone in Syria, supplying anti-aircraft weapons to Syria's opposition and encouraging other countries in the region to give arms.

The French government has said it hopes to convince fellow EU member states to relax the EU arms embargo on Syria to enable "defensive arms" to reach opposition fighters.

"France's position for the moment is to say that we must not militarise the conflict, but it is evidently unacceptable that there are liberated zones and that they be bombarded by [President Bashar al-Assad's] planes," France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told RTL radio.

Last week, Mr Cameron visited a UN-run compound on the border with Jordan, to see for himself the conditions being endured by tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

He said the action taken by the international community over the past 18 months had not been enough.

Nick Robinson said the situation was reaching what one Downing Street adviser called the "something-must-be-done stage".

Syrian opposition groups struck a deal in the Qatari capital Doha to form a broad coalition to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

'Horrendous' suffering

The US and the UK have both signalled support for the coalition but stopped short of recognising it as a government-in-exile.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent also this week estimated that 2.5 million people had been displaced within Syria, doubling the previous figure used by aid agencies.

Israel's military has said its tanks scored "direct hits" on Syrian artillery units after mortar shells fell near an army post.

This came after Israel said a Syrian shell hit another of its army posts on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

When he visited the refugee camp, Mr Cameron said the UK was to begin talks with armed Syrian rebels in a bid to unite the opposition to President Assad.

The prime minister said the suffering of the refugees was "horrendous".

Opposition and human rights activists estimate that more than 36,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Assad's rule began in March 2011.

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