Syria has become the "top destination for jihadists" throughout the world, William Hague said yesterday (Wednesday), announcing that Britain will give the opposition "non-lethal" military equipment for the first time.
The UK's Foreign Secretary promised another 13 million pounds of British help for opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, on top of 9.4 million pounds already committed.
While no weapons or ammunition will be supplied, Britain has secured an amendment of the European Union arms embargo to allow the provision of certain military equipment, such as armoured cars and body armour.
"Our policy has to move towards more active efforts to prevent the loss of life in Syria and this means stepping up our support to the opposition," said Hague in the House of Commons. The aim was to increase the "pressure on the regime to accept a political solution".
Hague's statement came as the United Nations confirmed that 20 peacekeepers from the Philippines had been detained by armed fighters in a Syrian-controlled area of the Golan Heights. A video posted on the internet showed the gunmen, claiming to be Syrian rebels, standing next to UN-marked vehicles.
Earlier, the UN announced that more than a million refugees have fled Syria, filling to capacity camps in all neighbouring countries, including Iraq. Hague gave warning that Syria's civil war could threaten British national security because Islamist fighters were flocking to the country. "Syria today has become the top destination for jihadists anywhere in the world," said Hague. "We cannot allow Syria to become another breeding ground for terrorists who pose a threat to our national security."
Assad's secular regime, dominated by the Alawite sect of Shia Islam, is a bitter foe of Sunni extremism. As the conflict continues, the opposition is becoming steadily more religious and radical. Last year, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader, called for Assad to be overthrown.
Western governments fear that if they fail to help the opposition, its mainstream leadership will be overtaken by extremists.
Hundreds of British passport-holders are believed to have travelled to Syria to fight against Assad. Some are already known to the British authorities for their extremist sympathies.
By offering more British help, Hague wants to steer the opposition in a moderate direction. But he still does not feel confident enough to give weapons. While the Foreign Secretary has not ruled out arming the insurgents in future, he stressed this would happen only if there was "absolutely no alternative".
In the meantime, Britain is going to the limits of the help allowed by the EU embargo. A specific exemption will for the first time allow the supply of "military equipment" - albeit "non-lethal". Four-wheel-drive vehicles with armour-plating will be provided so that opposition leaders can travel in safety within Syria.
The rebels now control large areas of the country. Hague said that Britain would help them to govern these regions, providing power generators, communications equipment, medical supplies and incinerators for refuse disposal, along with "assistance, advice and training on how to maintain security".
Hague acknowledged the danger of equipment falling in the wrong hands. He said that "all our assistance will be carefully calibrated and monitored" and channelled to "moderate groups".