Foreign secretary insists that practical help given to opposition will not extend to arming their forces
Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt
The Guardian, Tuesday 3 September 2013 22.20 BST
Free Syrian Army fighters inspect munitions and a tank that belonged to forces loyal to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in Khanasir, northern Syria. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters
The foreign secretary is to hold talks with Syrian opposition leaders on Wednesday in London on how to provide further practical non-military help for the rebel groups in the country.
William Hague also wants to discuss how to construct a more unified opposition capable of convincing sceptical Western public opinion that Syrian civil war is not a battle between two equally distasteful ideologies.
The foreign secretary is due to meet the newly elected Syrian National Coalition president Ahmed Asi Al Jarba. He is on a tour of European capitals, and also due to meet senior MPs including the chair of the foreign affairs select committee Richard Ottaway. Hague, speaking in the Commons, insisted practical help to the rebels will not extend to arming their forces, but a No 10 spokesman said it expected to continue to provide advice and training to rebels on how to secure areas no longer controlled by the Assad regime.
It is still possible Hague will travel to the G20 in St Petersburg to join David Cameron and talks on Syria being convened on the margins of the G20 summit including the French foreign minister Lauren Fabius as well as his counterparts from the United States, China, and Turkey.
Hague, unexpectedly thrown closer to the margins of the Syrian crisis by the Commons no vote last week, said the issue of Syria will dominate bilateral meetings at the summit.
In a Commons debate, the foreign secretary also rejected Labour calls for Iran to be included in Syrian peace talks, saying the Iranian regime was "actively engaged in assisting widespread murder by the Assad regime", and had not yet expressed support for a transitional government in Syria.
The shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, had called for a Syrian contact group to be formed involving key countries in the region, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, designed to kickstart a second round of peace talks in Geneva.
Iranian involvement was also supported by the former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw and some Tory parliamentarians, including Lord Lamont, the former Tory chancellor.
Hague said he was willing to meet the new Iranian foreign minister at a UN special assembly in New York this month, but questioned the over-optimistic view of Iranian diplomacy among some MPs. He also rejected the idea of a wider regional contact group proposed by Alexander and seen by Labour as successful in Lebanon.
The foreign secretary was wary of Iranian involvement, pointing out that Tehran had not been prepared to endorse the outcome of the first Geneva conference calling for a transitional government in Syria.
Hague added it was not a lack of forums that was a stumbling block to a settlement on Syria, but the lack of political agreement. He explained: "Our problem is not being unable to discuss these things in the international community – it is being unable to agree how we bring about a transitional government in Syria, formed from government and opposition by mutual consent.
"There is no shortage of venues for discussing those things, platforms for discussing those things – we have had two and a half years of discussion on this. It is agreement that is elusive, not a forum for discussion."
The minister also again assured Conservative MPs that there would not be a second vote on UK involvement in any attack on the Syrian regime. He stressed that any vote would not be on the same terms, suggesting that the government was keeping its options open in case circumstances changed radically.
It was notable that Hague held back from attacking Labour's stance on Syria, possibly due to the possibility of needing to construct a cross party alliance later. But it is unlikely that Cameron will be as constrained in the heated atmosphere of prime minister's questions on Wednesday.
In a sign of the tensions between the parties the education secretary, Michael Gove, said: "Ed Miliband made a cynical calculation to put his political interests ahead of national security and humanitarian intervention.
"He and his party are going to have to live with it ... the consequences rest with the Labour party and those who voted for them. It rests on their conscience."
David Miliband, brother of the Labour leader, Ed Miliband rebuked the West's approach to Syria.
He used an article in the Financial Times to warn: "While international engagement is decreasingly popular in the advanced democracies, a multipolar world makes it increasingly necessary".
He called for a fundamental step change in the humanitarian effort warning: "None of the military options being canvassed – or, in the UK, rejected – promises a decisive shift in the course of the conflict. We are not yet anywhere near the nadir of the humanitarian crisis already consuming five countries at the heart of the Middle East".