The Times, Published: 19 June 2012, Middle East.
Imam urges Britain to arm Syrian rebels
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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