British Foreign Secretary: "Substantial Number" of Britons Fighting With Extremists in Syria


Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

British Foreign Secretary William Hague has said in a letter to the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee that there are a "substantial number" of Britons fighting with extremist rebels in Syria, adding that they could be a threat to British national security in the future. Hague's statement comes shortly after the European Union's anti-terrorism chief said that many Europeans are fighting with rebels in Syria. 

Given that there are a Britons fighting with extremist elements within Assad's opposition it is strange that the British government has been sending aid to rebels in Syria. Last month, Prime Minister David Cameron has said that the U.K. may veto a renewal of the arms embargo on Syria. However, in his letter to the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Hague says that no decision has been made regarding the embargo.

If the E.U.'s arms embargo on Syria is lifted the U.K. and France could begin sending weapons to Syrian rebels. Last month the French foreign minister said that the U.K. and France would consider sending weapons even with the EU's embargo still in place. The embargo is up for renewal at the end of May. 

While it is the case that there are many rebels in Syria who do not have extremists sympathies there is no way to guarantee that whatever support rebels in Syria might receive from France or the U.K. do not end up in the hands of rebels who pose a threat to French or British national security.

The number of nationalities and ideologies involved in the Syrian conflict as well as its delicate diplomatic implications (particularly regarding Iran and Russia) make it different to other humanitarian crises. Both Assad's regime and its opposition contain unpleasant elements that have the potential to further destabilize the region. Were European countries to send weapons to rebels in Syria, even ones that had been vetted, it is impossible to know where the weapons will end up and how they will be used.