LONDON — Britain's government is giving an extra 5 million pounds (US$7.8 million) worth of aid to Syria's opposition, supplying items including communications equipment, body armor and medical supplies to groups seeking to oust President Bashar Assad's regime.
Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted that the U.K. would only supply equipment to those not directly involved in fighting – and seek to ensure the supplies did not end up in the hands of rebel fighters – and would not provide any weapons. But he declined to identify which individuals and groups would receive the equipment, saying to do that would leave them as likely targets.
Britain has previously given 1.4 million pounds (US$2.2 million) worth of nonlethal support to Syria's opposition. The United States has earmarked a fund of $25 million to spend on nonlethal communications assistance.
Assad's crackdown on popular uprisings that began in March 2011 has evolved into a full-blown civil war in the Arab country. Human rights activists estimate 20,000 people have died in the conflict.
"This is assistance that will help save lives," Hague told reporters at Britain's foreign ministry. "It will help people caught up in a terrible conflict."
Hague said the new British support would be provided to "the Syrian people and the Syrian political opposition," but that to identify specific groups or individuals would likely put them at risk.
"I cannot say anything, of course, that could risk identifying these people to the regime or reveal the precise nature of all of that assistance," Hague said.
Britain has established contact with political figures tied to Syria's rebels in Istanbul, where ex-British ambassador to Yemen Jonathan Wilkes is meeting with political elements of the Free Syrian Army, members of Syria's National Coordination Council and the Syrian National Council.
The U.K. has previously been cautious over direct talks with Syria's rebels. But Hague said the West must help them to prepare for Assad's ouster or risk allowing the country to become a haven for al-Qaida and other extremists.
"This is not taking sides in a civil war," he wrote in an op-ed article for the Times of London published Friday. "The risk of total disorder and a power vacuum is so great that we must build relationships now with those who may govern Syria in the future."
"If we do not work with those Syrians who want to see a democratic and open country, we leave a void to be exploited by al-Qaida and others with extremist agendas who wish to hijack the conflict," he added.
Hague said that discussions with Syria's opposition activists would stress that they must adhere to international standards on human rights despite "whatever horrors are perpetrated by the regime."
British Prime Minister David Cameron told 5 News television that his country is "working very closely with the Syrian opposition and we are getting to know them better."
"We cannot intervene militarily for the well known reasons. This is not Libya, this is a very different case. But can we help to try and bring about transition in Syria whether by acting at the United Nations or assisting the Syrian opposition? We can and we should," he said.
Britain is also providing video cameras and forensic equipment to Syrian activists to help them record human rights abuses by Assad's forces.
Hague said civilians in areas under regime control would receive supplies including "paramedic trauma kits, specialist trauma treatment, surgical equipment, field dressings, antibiotics, painkillers and water purification kits."
Satellite phones and electricity generators would help political activists overcome the regime's communications blockade, he said.
In his op-ed, Hague said he was using the spotlight focused on London as it hosts the Olympics to draw attention to international divisions over the response to Syria.
Russia and China have vetoed attempts to pass tough U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at Assad's regime. Last week, the U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, announced his resignation, following a frustrating six-month effort that failed to achieve even a temporary cease-fire.
Hague said he continued to hope Security Council members could agree to settle their differences, suggesting Britain would not pause "for a second in our efforts to secure the united, robust diplomatic action which this crisis demands."