Imam urges Britain to arm Syrian rebels
By Deborah Haynes, The Times, UK
Published: 19 June 2012
Britain should send anti-tank missiles and other weapons to Syrian opposition fighters in a move that would encourage other Western countries to follow suit and give the Free Syrian Army the ability to defeat the regime’s forces, a dissident religious leader said yesterday said.
Sheikh Sayyid Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, who was the first Syrian imam to speak out against President Assad at the start of the uprising against his rule last year, told The Times that he also wanted David Cameron to exert more pressure on Russia to stop blocking tougher international action against the regime, including potential foreign military intervention.
“It [British arms to Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters] will make a huge difference,” Sheikh Yaqoubi said in an exclusive interview during a brief trip to London from Morocco where he is living in exile after being banned from preaching in Syria in May 2011.
“It will break the balance. The regime now holds the balance of power against the FSA.”
Britain was one of the first countries to call for regime change in Syria and has offered humanitarian assistance as well as the provision of communications gear and other non-lethal aid to the opposition, but has stopped short of arming the rebels for fear of stoking further conflict rather than bringing an end to the bloodshed. Some Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have provided funds and limited weapons to resistance fighters but without the backing of countries such as the US and Britain the impact of such assistance has been limited.
Asked whether a British decision to arm the FSA would prompt other countries to do the same, Sheikh Yaqoubi said: “Yes definitely.”
He spoke to a contact in a town just outside of Damascus two days ago who described how the few rocket-propelled grenade launchers held by rebel fighters were ineffective against Government tanks, particularly as one RPG cost about $1,000 (Â£640).
“We need real anti-tank missiles,” he said the contact told him.
Convincing Russia to stop supporting Mr Assad was another important factor in accelerating an end to the killing, the religious leader added.
Moscow has its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union in the Syrian port of Tartus. But in a sign of growing concern over the future of the regime, the Russian navy was yesterday reported to be sending two warships to protect Russian citizens in Syria.
Sheikh Yaqoubi said the violence perpetrated by Assad supporters, including a massacre last month that left 49 children dead, meant that Moscow was no longer morally able to back the Syrian leader but it needed assurances that its military interests would be protected by any new ruling power.
“I think there will be some sort of political deals. Russia has its own demands from the West. At one point they will come to an agreement,” he said.
The religious figure, who is a founding member of a political party called the National Body, was in London to speak with MPs and officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He planned to express his views on the need to arm the opposition, to exert pressure on Russia and on the desirability for the UN Security Council to pass a resolution paving the way for military intervention and the creation of a safe haven inside Syria for opponents.
He was also due to deliver a speech at the Royal United Services Institute later today.
Driven to criticise the regime after witnessing its violence, Sheikh Yaqoubi was interrogated five times by the secret service for his sermons and on one occasion forced to sign a statement pledging to steer clear of politics.
“You can’t see people killed and keep silent,” said the imam, who used to deliver a service every Friday at the al-Hassan Mosque in the Syrian capital, just 500 metres away from the Presidential Palace. He also taught at the Umayyad or Great Mosque of Damascus, one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world.
“I witnessed with my own eyes things happening. You can’t keep silent if you are a human being, if you have a heart, if you have a conscience.”
Almost 600 of Syria’s 8,000 imams have been arrested and interrogated – some multiple times – for preaching messages that the regime did not like, according to Sheikh Yaqoubi.
He also said that more than 100 such religious leaders have been killed in the conflict that threatens to tear his country apart.
Sheikh Yaqoubi delivered his last sermon on May 5, 2011 when he called on Mr Assad to set all political prisoners free, let all Syrians living in exile return to the country, pull military forces from neighbourhoods and hold those responsible for any killings to account.
The next day he was told that he was no longer allowed to speak publicly. After spending ten days in hiding, he was advised to leave the country for his own safety.
A year later, Sheikh Yaqoubi conceded that the violence was even worse but said that the people’s will for regime change was also stronger.
“We hope and pray that Assad leaves the country and then we will go after him to hold him accountable for his crimes,” he said. “If not the Syrian people are determined to continue with the revolution. With more people killed there is more determination. People earn their freedom but it does not come cheap. With international help it will be much easier.”