Ruth Sherlock and Colin Freeman — Telegraph.co.uk July 15, 2013
General Salim Idris, the head of the Free Syrian Army, said the decision would “leave us alone to be killed” by President Bashar al Assad, and pave the way for al-Qaeda to dominate the rebel ranks.
Mr Idris hit out in an interview with The Daily Telegraph after Downing Street confirmed that Mr Cameron had ruled out arming the opposition on advice from the British military. The government had previously hinted that it was strongly considering it, successfully lobbying two months ago for an end to the European Union arms embargo.
But military chiefs at Britain’s National Security Council are understood to have warned Downing Street that the conflict was now too advanced for basic weapons supplies to make much difference.
They said that could only be achieved by a much-larger scale intervention, involving jet strikes on regime air defences and bases, which Britain has already ruled out.
Instead, Britain will draw up plans to train moderate rebel units and continue supplying “non-lethal” items like body armour and communications equipment.
The British change of heart was greeted with fury by Mr Idris, whose organisation is one of the main moderate rebel groups fighting President Assad. It has spent much of the last two years trying to persuade the West to give it military backing.
“The West promises and promises. This is a joke now,” Mr Idris said, the anger clear in his voice. “I have not had the opportunity to ask David Cameron personally if he will leave us alone to be killed. On behalf of all the Syrians, thank you very much”.
The move comes amid growing signs that the Syrian conflict is now turning in President Assad’s favour. On Monday, Syrian troops backed by tanks and artillery moved into the rebel-held Qaboun district of Damascus, stepping up efforts to drive opposition fighters from the capital.
Backed by fighters from Iran and the Lebanese Hizbollah militia, Syrian forces have also captured a number of key towns in recent weeks from the rebels, who have complained that foreign weapons supplies have all but dried up.
“What are our friends in the West waiting for?” asked Mr Idris. “For Iran and Hizbollah to kill all the Syrian people?”
Mr Idris also warned that the refusal of the West to arm the more moderate elements of the insurgency would hand Syria’s “revolution” to extremist groups, who already have better access to weapons.
“Soon there will be no FSA to arm,” he said. “The Islamic groups will take control of everything, and this is not in the interests of Britain”.
British officials are understood to share concerns about extremist groups gaining the upper hand in the rebel ranks. But they are also worried about the effectiveness of the mainstream rebel opposition, which they say is badly-divided and poorly organised. They also point out that it already has access to small-arms supplies from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
That, though, was disputed by members of the military council for Deraa, a Syrian town close to the Jordanian border, who told The Telegraph last week that they had been reduced to buying weapons from local Mafia groups.
“These are low-calibre arms,” one military commander complained. “No one is helping us.”
The British refusal will be seen as a particular blow to rebel morale given that recent signals suggested the government was planning the very opposite tack.
Only last month, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, insisted that Britain “shouldn’t rule any option out”, claiming that concerns about arms earmarked for secular rebel groups falling into jihadist hands were exaggerated.
One source suggested that such rhetoric had simply been part of a plan by Britain to encourage Damascus to take part in the forthcoming Syria peace conference in Geneva, scheduled for later this summer.
“This was never about arming the rebels,” he said. “It was simply a diplomatic bargaining chip to say to Assad: ‘if you don’t come to the table, we can arm the rebels’.”