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William Hague responds to ‘delusional’ Assad interview with promise to step up aid package with promise of more to come

The UK might start arming Syrian rebels if the death toll and humanitarian crisis continue to worsen, making it necessary to do “something new to save lives”, William Hague said on Sunday.

The foreign secretary is due to make a statement to parliament this week detailing a new package of aid to the rebels, following a relaxation last week of the EU rules on what can be sent to Syria. It is expected to include body armour and civilian vehicles reinforced to provide protection against shrapnel. Hague said the new aid would be non-lethal, excluding weapons and ammunition, but he stressed that policy could change as the conflict continues.

“I don’t rule out anything for the future. If this is going to go on for months, or years, and more tens of thousands of people are going to die, and countries like Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan are going to be destabilised, it is not something we can ignore,” the foreign secretary told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

“If ever we get into that situation [of supplying weapons to the opposition] the risks of arms falling into the wrong hands is one of the great constraints. And it is one of the reasons we don’t do it now. But these things are a balance of risk. You can reach consensus eventually when humanitarian need is so great and the loss of life is so great that you have to do something new to save lives. That’s why I don’t rule it out in the future.”

In an interview with the Sunday Times, president Assad yesterday denounced Britain for its leading role in pushing for more help to the rebels, accusing the government of neocolonialism.

“To be frank, Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades, some say for centuries,” the Syrian leader said in an interview with the Sunday Times. “The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of bullying and hegemony.”

He derided Britain’s stated aim of strengthening moderate rebel groups, arguing no such thing existed.

“The British government wants to send military aid to moderate groups in Syria, knowing all too well that such moderate groups do not exist in Syria; we all know that we are now fighting al-Qaida or Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an offshoot of al-Qaida, and other groups of people indoctrinated with extreme ideologies. This is beyond hypocritical,” Assad said.

Hague responded by telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “This will go down as one of the most delusional interviews that any national leader has given in modern times.”

The comments by Assad dampened hopes of peace negotiations that had been raised in Moscow last week by his foreign minister, Walid Muallem, who said the regime was ready to talk with the opposition. Assad said talks could only take part with those elements of the opposition that were “loyal to Syria” and who “surrender their arms”. He appeared to exclude the main opposition group, the National Coalition, arguing “the Syrian people do not recognise them or take them seriously”.

Today in an attempt to strengthen its ties with rebels inside Syria, the head of the coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, visited areas under their control near the northern city of Aleppo, which has been the focus of intense fighting in recent months. Khatib has offered to open talks with the Damascus regime, without insisting on the opposition’s earlier precondition of Assad stepping down, but demanding the government release 160,000 political prisoners.

National Coalition officials emerged from a meeting of their western and Arab backers in Rome on Thursday confident the European arms embargo would begin to crumble in the next few months and that Washington would also drop its ban on arming the rebels. They said that in recent weeks they have been allowed by Turkey to smuggle in more sophisticated types of weapons, including anti-tank missiles.

The website of the French newspaper, Le Figaro, yesterday quoted a French military source in the Middle East as saying that US, British and French special forces were already training Syrian rebels in Jordan, at the King Abdallah Special Operation Training Centre north of Amman.

The New York Times last week also quoted senior US officials as saying that American soldiers were helping train Syrian rebels “at a base in the region” . In his Le Figaro blog, the journalist Georges Malbrunot cited a source as saying the training mission began “before the end of last year”.

Rare sign of progress as foreign ministers meet Moaz al-Khatib for first time, but death toll in Syria continues to rise

The Russian and Iranian foreign ministers met the Syrian opposition leader, Moaz al-Khatib, for the first time on Saturday in a rare sign of diplomatic progress, but the bloodshed from the conflict continued to worsen, with nearly 5,000 people reported dead in January alone.

The latest death toll was reported by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a dissident group whose casualty estimates have been consistently confirmed by the UN. Its director, Sami Abdulrahman, said his researchers had recorded the deaths of 4,851 people in January, of whom 1,030 were members of the Syrian regular security forces while 3,305 were civilians or rebel irregulars.

It marks the second worst month of the 23-month conflict. Abdulrahman said the death toll appeared to reflect the widespread and intense nature of recent fighting and the regime’s heavy use of aerial bombardment of rebel-held areas.

At Munich, where a global security conference was held this weekend, there was some progress on the diplomatic front towards breaking a deadlock that has prevented a concerted international response to the conflict.

Khatib, the leader of Syria’s National Coalition opposition group, widely recognised in the west and the Arab world as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, met the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, the Assad regime’s only major supporters on the world stage.

The opposition leaders also met the US vice president, Joseph Biden, and the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, at the margins of the Munich conference.

Following Khatib’s offer to hold preliminary talks with the regime, conditional upon the release of political prisoners, the discussions raised hopes that a way could be found around the stalemate in the UN security council.

After his meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, the Syrian opposition leader said: “Russia has a certain vision but we welcome negotiations to alleviate the crisis and there are lots of details that need to be discussed.”

The Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Iran would hold further meetings with Khatib and called for the formation of a joint transitional government from among members of the regime and the opposition under UN supervision leading to elections and a new constitution.

However, there was no sign of a breakthrough over the central sticking point that has divided the security council and prevented Syrian peace talks: the fate of Assad.

Lavrov told the Munich conference: “The persistence of those who say that priority number one is the removal of Assad is the single biggest reason for the continuing tragedy in Syria.”

Salehi was less specific. His prescription for a transition to democracy made no mention of Assad, but he asked: “If you ask for the government to stand down before negotiations, who do you negotiate with?”

On Saturday, Biden gave his full support to the opposition stance that Assad has so much blood on his hands that he could not be part of a transition government. Biden said the White House was “convinced that President Assad, a tyrant hell-bent on clinging to power, is no longer fit to lead Syrian people and he must go”.

Moscow has become increasingly isolated in its personal backing for Assad. Brahimi, the UN envoy, told the security council last week that the implication of an agreement of major powers last year in Geneva was that Assad should have no part in the transition process.

The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, ridiculed the idea that the Syrian leader should remain in power to oversee a transition.

“It’s easy to say the opposition should sit down with him now after 60,000 people have been killed,” Davutoglu said. “If they held an election in his presence who would guarantee the security of the opposition? There should be an election, but first someone should be [held] responsible for all the killing.”

The Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jaber al-Thani, said repeated attempts to organise talks between Assad and the opposition in the early months of the Syrian uprising had failed because of “the intransigence of the regime”.

“I have no doubt Assad will leave, because he cannot stay with so much blood on his hands,” he said. He also criticised Israel for its air strikes in Syria last week, which he said would “add fuel to the fire”.

In the first direct comment by an Israeli official on Tuesday’s air strikes, Ehud Barak, the outgoing defence minister and deputy prime minister, appeared to confirm widespread reports that it was targeted at anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“What happened in Syria several days ago … that’s proof that when we said something we mean it, we say that we don’t think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon,” Barak told the Munich conference.

Bashar Assad said on Sunday that his military was capable of confronting any “aggression” that targeted the country, in his first remarks since the Israeli strike.

The Syrian Observatory’s estimate of the total number of dead from almost two years of conflict is 51,167. That is below the UN estimate of 60,000, but the Observatory’s methodology is more conservative, requiring confirmation of the names of the dead. Of that total, 3,717 of the war’s victims were children and 2,144 were women.

Russian prime minister suggests Syrian president’s days could be numbered, according to interview transcript

The Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, has said Bashar al-Assad’s chances of retaining power in Syria are getting “smaller and smaller” every day, according to the transcript of an interview with CNN released by Medvedev’s office.

His remarks were the most vocal Russian statement that Assad’s days could be numbered. But he reiterated calls for talks between the government and its foes and repeated Moscow’s position that Assad must not be pushed out by external forces.

“I think that with every day, every week and every month the chances of his preservation are getting smaller and smaller,” Medvedev was quoted as saying. “But I repeat, again, this must be decided by the Syrian people. Not Russia, not the United States, not any other country.

“The task for the United States, the Europeans and regional powers … is to sit the parties down for negotiations, and not just demand that Assad go and then be executed like [the late former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi or be carried to court sessions on a stretcher like [Egypt’s] Hosni Mubarak.”

Russia has been Assad’s most important ally throughout the 22-month-old Syrian conflict, which began with peaceful street protests and evolved into an armed uprising against his rule.

Moscow has blocked three UN security council resolutions aimed at pushing him out or pressuring him to end the bloodshed, which has killed more than 60,000 people. But Russia has also distanced itself from Assad by saying it is not trying to prop him up and will not offer him asylum.

Medvedev made some of Russia’s harshest criticisms of Assad to date, placing equal blame for the escalation into a civil war on “the leadership of the country and the irreconcilable opposition”. He also said Assad was far too slow to implement promised political reforms.

“He should have done everything much faster, attracting part of the moderate opposition, which was ready to sit at the table with him, to his side,” Medvedev was quoted as saying. “This was his significant mistake, and possibly a fatal one.”

The wording of the interview suggested it was not just Assad’s grip on power that was under threat, but his life. Medvedev’s remark about the chances of his “preservation” diminishing came when he was asked whether Assad could survive.

Russia has repeatedly called on western and Arab nations to put more pressure on Assad’s foes to seek a negotiated solution, but Medvedev acknowledged that Moscow’s influence on the Syrian president was limited.

“I have personally called Assad several times and said: conduct reforms, hold negotiations,” said Medvedev, who was Russia’s president until last May. “In my view, unfortunately, the Syrian leadership is not ready for this.

“But on the other hand, by no means should a situation be allowed in which the current political elite is swept away by armed actions, because then the civil war will last for decades,” he said.

Russia has given frequent indications it is preparing for Assad’s possible exit, while continuing to insist he must not be forced out by foreign powers.

Russia sells arms to Syria and uses a naval facility on the Mediterranean coast that is its only military base outside the former Soviet Union.

But analysts say its policy is driven mainly by the desire of the president, Vladimir Putin, to prevent the United States from using military force or support from the UN security council to bring down governments it opposes.