Last night’s comments from Leon Panatta, the US defence secretary, that the US was considering equipping Syrian rebels, triggered interest on this side of the Atlantic too.
Panetta insisted, as has the UK, that taking military action against Syria without agreement from the UN would be a “mistake”, but he acknowledged the Obama administration was considering providing communications equipment and other “non-lethal” support – something that has not previously been given.
So when William Hague was quizzed by the foreign affairs select committee this morning, it was the perfect chance for the MPs on that committee to ask if Britain would so the same. We have always ruled out arming the rebels – Philip Hammond repeated the view today that to do so would be illegal – but could we provide any “non-lethal” equipment?
Hague revealed that the UK is actually already doing so – to an extent:
We can help and we will continue to offer help to peaceful Syrian opposition groups – practical assistance. We have helped in non-lethal ways… but we haven’t countenanced doing that beyond groups that are so far outside Syria.
So we are providing communications equipment to non-violent dissidents outside Syria – hardly the most effective way of combating the Assad regime, one might think. But there is a reason, beyond the legality, that the UK is worried about going further and equipping the rebels themselves, as Panetta suggested. When Hague was asked whether such equipment might end up in the hands of al-Qaeda, he said:
That is a consideration in trying to provide practical assistance, it is one of the difficulties we have. The opposition has not formed a united group -that is one of the considerations in this for us.
Diplomatically put, but the message was clear – the UK is obviously worried about the extent to which al-Qaeda has infiltrated the Syrian rebels and therefore what the consequences of helping them directly might be.