David Cameron was pressed on Barack Obama’s decision to give assistance to the Syrian rebels when he spoke to journalists in the Downing Street garden this afternoon. He gave a long answer, the transcript of which you can read at the bottom of this post, along with the audio. But here are the key points on the Prime Minister’s current thinking on Syria.
1. He agrees with the American stance. He told the press conference: ‘I think it is right that the Americans have said what they have said and I wanted to back that up with the information and the involvement that we’ve had in that assessment.’ That included Britain seeing ‘credible evidence of multiple attacks using chemical weapons in Syria’. But this is as much about America moving towards Britain’s position on Syria. The US has thus far been much less hawkish.
2. But Britain is not yet going to arm the rebels. Cameron said ‘we’ve made no decision to arm the opposition’, and then repeated that it was ‘right’ to lift the arms embargo. The reason he gave for this underlined that Cameron sees the continuation of the arms embargo itself as an endorsement of Assad’s behaviour. He described the ‘folly of having some embargo that gives some sort of almost moral equivalence to President Assad and to the legitimate opposition’. He made no further hints about whether Britain would follow the US’ lead, simply explaining that ‘we will continue to support, train and work with the opposition’.
3. He accepts that there are concerns about the opposition. The Prime Minister told the press conference that ‘we assess that elements affiliated to al Qaeda in the region have attempted to acquire chemical weapons for probable use in Syria’. Other than that, he said there were no credible reports of the Syrian opposition using chemical weapons, and that it was important to ‘encourage those that do have a positive, pluralistic and democratic view about the future of Syria’.
The problem is that to take that next step of saying there is a compelling case for arming the rebels, just as William Hague said there was a ‘compelling case’ for lifting the arms embargo, the Prime Minister needs to set out what that case is. Currently it is not clear, other than that there is a case for bringing an end to the conflict. As Fraser blogged earlier, there is also a case that arming the rebels would do exactly the opposite.
In terms of Syria and chemical weapons, let me say this. I welcome the candid assessment from the Americans. It is consistent with what we’ve already said. There is credible evidence of multiple attacks using chemical weapons in Syria, including the use of the abhorrent agent Sarin. We have tested physiological samples at Porton Down. These include samples from Utaybah on the 19th March, and from Sheikh Maqsood on 13th April. We believe that the scale of use is sanctioned and ordered by the Assad regime. We haven’t seen any credible reporting of chemical weapons use by the Syrian opposition. However we assess that elements affiliated to Al Qaeda in the region have attempted to acquire chemical weapons for probable use in Syria. That is the picture as described to me by the Joint Intelligence Committee and I always choose my words on this subject very carefully because of the issues there have been in the past, but I think it is right that the Americans have said what they have said and I wanted to back that up with the information and the involvement that we’ve had in that assessment. On what we should do about this, let me say this. First of all, we’ve made no decision to arm the opposition, but it was right to lift the arms embargo. The information about chemical weapons further shows the folly of having some embargo that gives some sort of almost moral equivalence to President Assad and to the legitimate opposition. We will continue to support, train and work with the opposition, and of course there are concerns about some of the opposition, but my argument is this, if we don’t engage with elements of the opposition and encourage those that do have a positive, pluralistic and democratic view about the future of Syria, we won’t be able to influence the shape of that opposition. But what is clear today is there is a broader issue in our world today, there is a brutal dictator who is using chemical weapons under our nose in a conflict where almost 100,000 have already died and what is important is that we work with our partners to do what we can to bring this to an end. Everyone wants to see that peace process, that peace conference, that move to a transitional government, but we must work with our allies and friends in the region to do everything we can to bring this dreadful conflict to an end and that is what we will do in the days and the weeks ahead.
The next Spectator Debate on 24 June will be debating the motion ‘Assad is a war criminal. The West must intervene in Syria’ with Malcolm Rifkind, Andrew Green, Douglas Murray and more. Click here to book tickets.