David Cameron was pressed on Barack Obama's decision to give assistance to the Syrian rebels when he spoke to journalists in the Downing Street garden this afternoon. He gave a long answer, the transcript of which you can read at the bottom of this post, along with the audio. But here are the key points on the Prime Minister's current thinking on Syria.
1. He agrees with the American stance. He told the press conference: 'I think it is right that the Americans have said what they have said and I wanted to back that up with the information and the involvement that we've had in that assessment.' That included Britain seeing 'credible evidence of multiple attacks using chemical weapons in Syria'. But this is as much about America moving towards Britain's position on Syria. The US has thus far been much less hawkish.
2. But Britain is not yet going to arm the rebels. Cameron said 'we've made no decision to arm the opposition', and then repeated that it was 'right' to lift the arms embargo. The reason he gave for this underlined that Cameron sees the continuation of the arms embargo itself as an endorsement of Assad's behaviour. He described the 'folly of having some embargo that gives some sort of almost moral equivalence to President Assad and to the legitimate opposition'. He made no further hints about whether Britain would follow the US' lead, simply explaining that 'we will continue to support, train and work with the opposition'.
3. He accepts that there are concerns about the opposition. The Prime Minister told the press conference that 'we assess that elements affiliated to al Qaeda in the region have attempted to acquire chemical weapons for probable use in Syria'. Other than that, he said there were no credible reports of the Syrian opposition using chemical weapons, and that it was important to 'encourage those that do have a positive, pluralistic and democratic view about the future of Syria'.
The problem is that to take that next step of saying there is a compelling case for arming the rebels, just as William Hague said there was a 'compelling case' for lifting the arms embargo, the Prime Minister needs to set out what that case is. Currently it is not clear, other than that there is a case for bringing an end to the conflict. As Fraser blogged earlier, there is also a case that arming the rebels would do exactly the opposite.