David Cameron said today that he is “as worried as anyone” about terrorist and extremist elements among opposition forces fighting to oust Bashar Assad in Syria.
The Prime Minister was speaking ahead of the opening of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, which looks set to be dominated by international tensions over Syria.
Among attendees at the summit are US President Barack Obama, who last week said he was ready to send weapons to the Syrian opposition, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the Assad regime’s most important international backer and warned yesterday that the West should be wary of arming rebels who “eat the organs” of their enemies.
Mr Cameron insisted that no decision has yet been made on whether Britain should send arms, and repeated his assurance that he would “never stand in the way” of the House of Commons voting on any such move.
London Mayor Boris Johnson warned today against arming the rebels, saying that British weapons could end up in the hands of “al Qaida-affiliated thugs”.
In a round of TV interviews at Lough Erne, Mr Cameron said: “Let’s be clear - I am as worried as anybody else about elements of the Syrian opposition, who are extremists, who support terrorism and who are a great danger to our world.
“The question is what do we do about it? My argument is that we shouldn’t accept that the only alternative to Assad is terrorism and violence.
“We should be on the side of Syrians who want a democratic and peaceful future for their country and one without the man who is currently using chemical weapons against them.
“What we can try and do here at the G8 is have further pressure for the peace conference and the transition that is needed to bring this conflict to an end.”
The Prime Minister added: “We haven’t made a decision to give any arms to the Syrian opposition but what we do need to do is bring about this peace conference and this transition, so that people in Syria can have a government that represents them, rather than a government that’s trying to butcher them.
“What we are doing right now is helping the official Syrian opposition - people who have signed up to democracy and human rights, who want that sort of future for Syria.
“We are advising them, helping them and we are assisting them - and we should.
“President Assad wants us to think that the only alternative to him is extremism and violence. Yet there are millions of people in Syria who want a peaceful and democratic future. We should be on their side.”
Mr Cameron went on: “My concern is that the current trajectory in Syria is very, very damaging. You have got a dictator who is brutalising his people, who’s using chemical weapons against innocent people. You’ve got an opposition, elements of which are extremely dangerous extremist terrorists.
“The trajectory we are on is very damaging, so what we need to do is make sure we can have a peace conference and a peace process and a transition to a regime that can stand up for everyone in Syria.
“It’s an extraordinarily difficult situation, but I think we should be engaged rather than disengaged.”
The PM said it was “right” to have lifted the EU arms embargo because it suggested there was a “moral equivalence” between Assad and the moderate forces seeking a democratic future for Syria.
Asked whether he expected the US to start sending weapons to the opposition forces, Mr Cameron said: “That is a matter for President Obama, but what I know President Obama will do, and will continue to do, is to work with us, with the French and other powers in the Gulf to work for those millions of Syrians who want a peaceful and democratic future for their country.”
He acknowledged that there was “a big difference” between the positions of Russia and the West, which was laid bare in his talks with Mr Putin at Downing Street yesterday.
“There’s clearly a big difference between the Russian position and the position of Britain, France and America and many others,” he said.
“But where there is common ground is that we all see the need for a peace conference, a peace process and a transition to a different regime in Syria. There is some common ground there and that’s what we should work on here at the G8.”
Asked whether he would give MPs a vote on any decision to supply arms, the PM replied: “I’ve made the position about votes in the Commons very clear, but, as I said, we haven’t made a decision to arm the rebels. I’ve always said I would never stand in the way of the Commons having these votes.”
Despite the international focus on Syria, Mr Cameron made clear that his key priorities for the two-day summit are economic issues, including a planned EU/US free trade deal and measures to crack down on tax havens.
The Prime Minister has put the “three Ts” of trade, tax and transparency at the top of the agenda while the UK holds the year-long presidency of the G8.
Later today, Mr Obama and EU leaders are expected to launch negotiations on what has been dubbed an “economic Nato”.
When talks conclude in 18-24 months’ time, Mr Cameron believes the EU/US trade pact could be worth £10 billion to the UK economy - or £380 for every British household.
He is also hoping to forge agreement on greater sharing of tax information in order to prevent companies and individuals avoiding paying their fair share by hiding cash in offshore bolt-holes.
At the weekend the tax transparency drive was boosted by the agreement of 10 British overseas territories and crown dependencies to sign up to new OECD standards.
Mr Cameron said: “I think we have made huge progress already, even before leaders have arrived here in Northern Ireland.
“I know the scepticism there is around the country about leaders meeting, a lot of words, will things happen?
“I want to be absolutely clear that my agenda here is about helping hard-working families right here in the United Kingdom.
“We’ve already actually gathered billions of pounds of extra tax revenue because of this agenda, which means that I can keep taxes down on hard-working families across the United Kingdom.
“We are going to achieve more on that. If we sign trade deals and start trade negotiations here at this meeting in Northern Ireland, that will cut prices and mean a wider range of goods in shops here in the United Kingdom and jobs here in the United Kingdom.
“So my focus is very clear - getting agreements, signing deals, making progress on issues that will help hard-working families right here in the United Kingdom. For me, that’s what the agenda of this G8 is all about.”