Britain backs arming Syrian rebels

DOHA, Qatar: The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has split the Western alliance with unexpected proposals to open the door to arming the Syrian opposition, just as the US is becoming alarmed at its Islamist make-up and human rights abuses.

Downing Street is floating proposals to alter the European Union's embargo on Syria to allow arming the rebels, under the pretext of recognising their ''right to self-defence''. Rebels are demanding weapons to allow them to ''finish the job'' of removing the President, Bashar al-Assad.

But with rebel groups admitting to executing prisoners, and radical Islamists taking more prominent roles in the fighting, Mr Cameron's initiative has caused surprise.

''It's amazing,'' said one Western diplomat familiar with the startled US response. ''Questions have to be asked in London as to what Cameron is thinking.''

The diplomat was speaking in Doha, the Qatari capital, where Syrian exiles have spent the week with Western and Arab supporters who are trying to cajole them into a semblance of unity.

One rebel general complained that the present approach seemed designed to create a permanent civil war.

''When the revolutionaries get stronger, and start to beat the government, the international community stops weapons being sent,'' said Yehya al-Bitar, a defector from the regime's air force, at the Free Syrian Army headquarters in Idlib province. ''Then when the revolutionaries become weak, more support arrives.''

World leaders are hoping a more coherent strategy can be ordained in Doha. But the last week has been spent attempting to reconcile the competing demands of factions inside and outside the biggest opposition body, the Syrian National Council. Mr Cameron's proposal would allow Britain to act as a ''quartermaster'' directing the flow of arms among rebels, one official said last week.

The idea is likely to meet resistance from the US. The US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, made clear there had been no change in Washington's decision not to provide heavy weaponry.

Telegraph, London

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