Prime Minister David Cameron said the U.K. government is sticking with plans to give non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition and that lawmakers would have a say on any decision to provide weapons.
“We’ve made no decision to arm the rebels, to arm the opposition, but it’s very important that we continue to work with them, train them and assist them,” Cameron said at a press conference in London today. He said the Group of Eight leaders’ summit starting tomorrow will bring “new momentum and leadership to start negotiations to deliver a transitional government and to keep Syria intact and to stop the killing.”
Cameron’s position contrasts with that of President Barack Obama, who has pledged to send light weapons to the Syrian rebels. The U.S. and U.K. say President Bashar al-Assad’s departure is essential to any political transition, while Russia, another member of the G-8 nations, is a long-time ally and arms supplier to Syria.
Cameron and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke after talks today at 10 Downing Street. Putin said the provision of arms to the Syrian government contravened no law.
“Russia supplies arms to the legitimate government of Syria according to international law,” he said. “We breach nothing. And we call on our partners to act the same way.”
Cameron’s position on arming rebels reiterated his comments in a Sky News interview taped yesterday and broadcast today. When asked in the interview about U.K. lawmakers voting on arming the rebels, Cameron said he’d “never want to stand in the way of Parliament having a say.”
Cameron’s Conservatives are trailing behind the opposition Labour Party less than two years before the next general election. A poll of voting intentions by YouGov Plc for the Sunday Times showed Labour in the lead with 39 points, followed by the Conservatives at 30. The Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition government, had 10 points, behind the U.K. Independence Party at 14. The survey of 1,897 people was conducted June 13-14. A margin of error wasn’t given.
Voter opinion of Cameron was 23 percent favorable and 52 percent unfavorable, according to a ComRes Ltd. poll for the Sunday Mirror. London Mayor Boris Johnson had a 44 percent favorable view, with 27 percent unfavorable, and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband had a 20 percent favorable rating and 49 percent unfavorable.
Cameron’s government is seeking additional budget cuts as it prepares to present a spending review to Parliament on June 26. He told Sky “there are efficiencies we can make” on defense spending.
G-8 leaders discussed a political solution to the conflict in Syria in an hour-long videoconference call before a two-day summit that starts tomorrow at the Lough Erne resort in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.
The U.S. decision to arm the opposition came as rebels suffered losses and following confirmation that forces loyal to Assad had used chemical weapons. Some Sunni extremist groups allied with al-Qaeda are also seeking to replace Assad.
Cameron said the U.K. is providing non-lethal support such as vehicles, and that some of the “greatest assistance” Britain can provide is advice, training and technical support.
“There are elements of the Syrian opposition that are deeply unsavory, very dangerous, very extremist, and I want nothing to do with them, I want them driven out of Syria,” he said. “There are elements of the Syrian opposition who want to see a free, democratic, pluralistic Syria that respects the rights of minorities, including Christians, and we should be working with them.”