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UK pledges its backing for Syrian opposition

By Venetia Rainey

The Foreign Secretary William Hague said yesterday that Britain would recognise the opposition Syrian National Council as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people”, but specifically ruled out arming the group to help it topple the Assad regime.

However, as world leaders and diplomats from more than 60 countries met in Tunis at the Friends of Syria conference to discuss the crisis, the SNC, a largely Turkish-based exile group that is the best organised among the groups opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, made it clear that it would not wait for an international consensus to provide Syrian resistance groups with the military means to defend themselves.

The SNC said in a statement: “The Friends of Syria should not constrain individual countries from aiding the Syrian opposition by means of military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend itself.”

The words were later echoed by Saudi Arabia's foreign minister who described arming the SNC as “an excellent” idea. Qatar's foreign minister proposed an Arab peace force to impose a settlement on the country that most analysts agree is now in a state of civil war.

Although the international community is heavily divided on the issue, there is a growing feeling among Syrians that there may be no other option but to take the fight to Assad. Speaking at the conference yesterday, Nasser al-Dhaheri, a writer and member of the SNC, said: “We assume that the Friends of Syria will help the Free Syrian Army and we expect that if they don't ... we will do it under the table.”

Mr Hague said he could understand that opponents of the Syrian government would find it “frustrating” that the SNC military wing would not receive military backing from the UK. But he added that “we have in the European Union an arms embargo on Syria, so of course we will observe it”.

Yesterday's conference was organised after talks at the United Nations lost momentum amid opposition from permanent Security Council members, China and Russia. “I hope those countries will take note of this strength of international feeling and support that we are seeing here in Tunis,” Mr Hague said.

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