London: David Cameron has ditched plans to arm the Syrian rebels after being warned by military chiefs that there is little point sending weapons unless he is prepared for all-out war with the Bashar Al Assad regime.
Defence chiefs told the prime minister that sending small arms or ground to air missiles is ‘hardly worth it’ since it would make little difference to the outcome of the conflict.
General Sir David Richards, Chief of the Defence Staff, and other commanders told Cameron that even options like a no-fly zone would require air attacks on Syrian defences lasting weeks or even months. Instead, senior ministers and Whitehall officials have revealed that the Coalition is drawing up plans to help train and advise moderate elements of the opposition forces battling Al Assad’s forces.
Cameron has been keen to act on Syria and demanded an end to the EU arms embargo on the country at the end of May to give him options. But Tory whips have warned he has little prospect of winning a vote in the Commons if he sought to send weapons. The military were asked to present options at a meeting of the National Security Council last month on the conflict, which has claimed 100,000 lives.
“Cameron was told although it might make the Government feel better, [sending weapons] was hardly worth it in terms of altering the balance of forces on the ground,” a senior Government source said. “The chiefs said that if you want to do anything militarily, you have to do it properly and that means weeks of bombing. The Syrians have good air defences and you’d have to take them out. You could do it but it’s not something you can do half-heartedly.” The source added: “There are three things you can do: arm, train and advise. What you’ll see from us are the elements where we can bring something to the game and that means training and advising. It is not possible to send enough military kit to put the rebels on a level playing field with the regime. What they lack is organisation.”
A Cabinet Minister backed the military and said there was ‘little point’ in Britain contributing arms since states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are already sending weapons.
“We need to concentrate on areas where we have expertise.”
It is understood that military advisers could be stationed in Jordan to advise Syrian rebel leaders on strategy and tactics. UK chiefs are wary of being accused of having British boots on the ground in Syria. Ministers believe it could take 18 months of further conflict before Al Assad is forced to the negotiating table. Government officials have privately expressed frustration about the approach taken by US Secretary of State John Kerry in pushing rebels and regime figures to the negotiating table with little idea of the solution he is seeking. One said: “In these sort of negotiations you need to know where you are trying to get to in order to get there. You start at the end and work backwards.”