Last updated: 16 November, 2012

Britain welcomes Syrian opposition leaders to London

Britain welcomed the new Syrian opposition to London on Friday but said it needed to know more about their plans before joining France in recognising them as the main voice against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said the opposition had taken a “very big step forward” by uniting and said Britain would decide “in the coming days” whether to recognise it as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

In a BBC radio interview, Hague also confirmed that Britain was re-examining a European Union embargo that prevents the arming of the opposition, although he stressed London was currently offering only non-lethal support.

Hague was hosting talks on Friday with Muslim cleric Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, a Damascus moderate who was elected head of the new Syrian opposition grouping on Sunday, and his deputies Riad Seif and Suhair al-Atassi.

“We would like to be in a position to recognise them as the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian people,” Hague said.

“But I do want to hear more about their plans, about who they are going to appoint to particular positions, about whether the Kurds will be included, and how much support they have inside Syria.

“After we’ve had that meeting today we may be able in the coming days to come to a judgement about that.”

Hague was to open the meeting at the Foreign Office, after which Jon Wilks, Britain’s special envoy to the Syrian opposition, will chair the discussions.

France, Turkey and the Gulf states have so far granted official recognition to the new Syrian opposition grouping, and Khatib is due to meet with French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Saturday.

The French foreign minister on Thursday publicly raised the prospect of easing the EU arms embargo on Syria to allow rebels to have defensive weapons, and said he would discuss the proposals with other members of the bloc.

Hague said no decision had yet been made to change the embargo, but confirmed that the prospect of providing military support to the rebels had been discussed at a meeting of Britain’s national security council on Thursday.

“We will discuss with the opposition today giving them more non-lethal assistance, not arms but other practical assistance that we can send that helps save lives,” he said.

“Of course we will discuss with our European partners the future of the arms embargo. We’ve made no decision to change that so far.”