Britain to give over $7 million to Syria rebels; U.S. seeks ways to strengthen opposition


Britain will give Syrian rebels a further £5 million ($7.82 million) to buy communications equipment and medical supplies to use in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad, the Foreign Office said Friday.

Foreign Secretary William Hague was due to announce the aid alongside an increase in contacts with the opposition, especially the Free Syrian Army, but Britain will still not supply weapons.

A Foreign Office spokesman told AFP that Hague was expected to announce the extra £5 million at a press conference later Friday.

Hague said in an article in The Times newspaper that Britain was stepping up its non-lethal aid because the “people of Syria cannot wait while the wheels of diplomacy turn”.

“This week, on my instructions, my ambassador-level representative to the Syrian opposition has contacted and is meeting political elements of the Free Syria Army,” he said.

Hague said Britain’s contacts with the often fractious Syrian rebel movement were aimed at helping them unite against Assad.

“This is not taking sides in a civil war. The risk of total disorder and a power vacuum is so great that we must build relationships now with those who may govern Syria in the future,” he said.

Hague said Britain would give the rebels a “tough message that they must observe human rights standards, whatever horrors are perpetrated by the regime”.

The extra equipment supplied by Britain would include paramedic kits, water purification equipment and portable power generators, Hague said.

Activists say the conflict in Syria has claimed more than 21,000 lives.

Meanwhile U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice said the fighting on the ground in Syria is intensifying and the momentum clearly is shifting in favor of the opposition.

“The defections are mounting, the economic pressure is mounting, the political isolation of the Assad regime,” said Rice in an inte4rview on the Morning Joe program on MSNBC.

The aim is to accelerate a peaceful political transition, Rice said, but given the failure of the effort by former U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan and given Russia and China’s blocking of any meaningful U.N. Security Council action, that will have to occur on the ground. “With the pressure on the Assad regime continuing to mount to the point where it crumbles from within, which is what we are beginning to see,” Rice said.

Rice said the United States is “actively looking at ways to strengthen the opposition: materially and financially and substantively and politically and that is already beginning to show some progress on the ground.”

Furthermore, Rice said the alliance of Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Assad’s government -- a group that boasts of being the Middle East’s “an axis of resistance” -- was “bad for the region.”

Some Syrian opposition rebels and U.S. politicians have called for a no fly zone and Rice said “none of these potential options have been ruled out.”

However, the U.S. diplomat said the United States was wary about imposing a Libya-style no fly zone over Syria even though it wanted to increase support for the opposition.

But she said “the reality is that a no-fly zone isn’t a simple proposition, it would ultimately involve putting boots on the ground and it would be a very different circumstance than we saw in Libya.”

The U.S. envoy said “the Syrian air defenses are among the most sophisticated in the world. Their military is quite a different beast.”

Last year, United States, Britain and France led a coalition which patrolled a no-fly zone over Libya. The mission later escalated into a NATO-led bombing campaign in support of the rebels that eventually overthrew Muammar Qaddafi.

Russia, China and other U.N. Security Council countries say they were tricked into accepting the resolution which gave U.N. approval to the action.

Russia and China have blocked three Security Council resolutions which threatened or even hinted at sanctions against Assad’s government.