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Britain: We are actively preparing for life after Assad

We are actively preparing for life after Assad

Britain is now talking directly to Syrian rebels to stop extremists stepping into the void

by William Hague
14th August 2012

The world is gathered in London to celebrate achievements of human strength during the Olympics. But only a few hours from our shores, a deadly and harrowing test of human endurance is taking place. Every day the killing continues in Syria: 20,000 people have died and more than 120,000 have fled. The situation is a tragedy for the Syrian people and a growing danger to the rest of the world.

The Arab Spring came to Syria more than a year ago with peaceful protests against Bashar Assad’s regime. People calling for political and economic freedom were met with a military campaign that has grown in cruelty as the regime has become more desperate.

The international community is also divided. All five permanent members of the UN Security Council backed Kofi Annan’s plan to stop the bloodshed. But when the time came to give that plan the full force of a UN Security Council resolution with the threat of sanctions, two countries stood in the way.

Many will ask where this leaves the beleaguered people of Syria. One thing is crystal clear: the Assad regime is doomed. It has burnt its bridges with the Syrian people and the outside world. By refusing a political compromise, it has driven many Syrians to take up arms in self defence. It has turned Syria into a magnet for men of violence, from the regime’s barbaric militias to terrorists slipping across the borders. Millions of Syrians are paying the price for the regime’s colossal miscalculation.

Our objective is a political settlement that stops the violence, protects all Syria’s communities and allows Syrians themselves to choose their next government. This course is supported by the vast majority of the UN and most of Syria’s neighbours. It is the surest means to avert the complete collapse of the Syrian state through a protracted civil war.

It is time to put aside division at the Security Council and for all major powers to work with Arab countries to stem the violence. If Russia and China will join us in standing up for Syrians, not propping up Assad, we will gladly work with them at the UN, starting with the Security Council meeting called by France at the end of this month.

But the people of Syria cannot wait while the wheels of diplomacy turn. Many more people will die without urgent help. That is why we will now focus our efforts on urgent practical assistance to Syrians on the ground while diplomacy continues.

First, we will increase our work with the Syrian opposition, including representatives of the Free Syria Army, to ensure that they prepare for the inevitable day of Assad’s fall. 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. These contacts include a tough message that they must observe human rights standards, whatever horrors are perpetrated by the regime. We will expand and deepen our relationships with all those political groups preparing for a future free from Assad’s regime, helping them to unite and present a political alternative.

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. If we do not work with those Syrians who want to see a democratic and open country, we leave a void to be exploited by al-Qaeda and others with extremist agendas who wish to hijack the conflict.

It has not been our policy to send arms to any of the conflicts in the Arab Spring and we are not doing so now. But we will provide non-lethal assistance. For example, we are now funding medical and communications equipment for Syrian political opposition groups and will provide more, including paramedic kits, water purification equipment and portable power generators.

Second, we will provide new assistance to injured and displaced people. We have quadrupled British aid for Syrian refugees and are helping to feed more than 80,000 Syrians every month, including in Aleppo and Idlib. We are supplying medical stocks to field hospitals giving emergency medical care, blankets and mattresses in places such as Homs.

Third, we want to deter those committing war crimes by making it possible for them to be held to account. We will provide urgent training and equipment to Syrian human rights activists, including cameras, video recorders and forensic equipment.

The aim is to help them to document human rights violations, identify the military commanders responsible and gather medical forensic evidence to be used in trials. Britain has already trained more than 60 Syrian human rights activists to collect information to support criminal investigations. This new assistance will enable others to do the same.

Fourth, we will increase the pressure on Assad through every peaceful means available to us, closing loopholes in sanctions, cutting off the regime’s finances and urging countries in the region to follow Europe’s lead and help to tighten the stranglehold.

And fifth, the international community must be ready to help to avoid a power vacuum in the country. So we are working with international partners to plan for future scenarios in Syria and will propose a new mechanism to co-ordinate support for the country in transition. We will call at the UN for all like-minded countries to step up their efforts in this area.

Syria’s future may be mired in uncertainty. But we are utterly determined to do all we can to stand by those seeking their freedom and work with our allies to try to bring about a peaceful end to this appalling crisis.

*************

William Hague is The British Foreign Secretary.

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