Army chief: We risk war with Syria
Britain has to be prepared to “go to war” if it wishes to restrain the Syrian regime by implementing no-fly zones and arming the rebels, the outgoing head of the armed forces warns today.
10:08PM BST 17 Jul 2013
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, General Sir David Richards said that “if you want to have the material impact on the Syrian regime’s calculations that some people seek” then “ground targets” would have to be “hit”.
The Chief of the Defence Staff also warns that the Government needs to clarify its “political objective” in Syria before a coherent military plan for dealing with the Assad regime can be recommended.
Last month, David Cameron and Barack Obama indicated that they would look at military measures after evidence emerged showing that the Syrian regime was using chemical weapons against its citizens.
However, in recent days, the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for further intervention appears to have waned following private warnings from Sir David and Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, about the implications of being drawn further into the Syrian civil war.
Sir David today steps down as the country’s most senior military officer and in an interview with this newspaper he sets out his concerns about the complexity of the situation in Syria.
“There is a lack of international consensus on how to take this forward,” he said. “We are trying to cohere the opposition groups, but they are difficult to cohere because there are many different dimensions to them.
“So it is work in progress, so I am very clear in my military advice to the government that we need to understand what the political objective is before we can sensibly recommend what military effort and forces should be applied to it.”
He added: “That is something we debate a lot, from the Prime Minister downwards. We also need to do this with our allies. Allies have different views on the way ahead. Understandably there is a great reluctance to see Western boots on the ground in a place like Syria.”
The chief of the defence staff also warns that simply introducing a no-fly zone on its own would not prove effective and that other military measures would be required.
Sir David, 61, said: “If you wanted to have the material impact on the Syrian regime’s calculations that some people seek, a no fly zone per se is insufficient.
“You have to be able, as we did successfully in Libya, to hit ground targets.
“You have to establish a ground control zone. You have to take out their air defences. You also have to make sure they can’t manoeuvre – which means you have to take out their tanks, and their armoured personnel carriers and all the other things that are actually doing the damage.
“If you want to have the material effect that people seek you have to be able to hit ground targets and so you would be going to war if that is what you want to do.”
He added: “That is rightly a huge and important decision. There are many arguments for doing to but there are many arguments for not doing so too.”
The country’s most senior military officer described the situation as “highly complex” and suggested that the focus of Government action was also on ensuring the conflict did not “spread” to neighbouring countries.
“We are looking at Syria much more from a regional perspective and making sure that as awful as things are there it doesn’t spread materially to other countries like Lebanon and Jordan,” he said.
At the recent G8 summit in Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister won plaudits for appearing to persuade Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, to back a peace conference to resolve the Syrian crisis. Mr Cameron had previously warned that those who failed to stand up to the Assad regime were “stained” by the blood of children who had died.
However, he is facing increasing opposition within the Conservative Party over any move to arm the Syrian rebels amid fears that the equipment could fall into the hands of terrorists.
In today’s interview, Sir David, who today ends a military career spanning more than 40 years, also speaks of his pride of what has been achieved in Afghanistan ahead of the withdrawal of combat troops next year. He said it had been a “good war” and that members of the military who have died in the conflict “should be very proud of what they have achieved.”
“I see myself as a moral soldier,” he said. “I do not associate the military with wars and bloodshed in a narrow sense. I actually associate the military with doing good, with bringing down tyrants, with releasing people’s ambitions for their children.”
“Most people feel better as a result of what the British and their allies have done. Only history will determine the success or otherwise of some of these ventures. But it is military force that has enabled these things to happen - and we only do as our democratically-elected government asks of us.”
He also lauded the success of the mission in preventing any terrorist attacks being plotted from Afghan soil against Britain since 2001.
The chief of defence staff says that although combat troops will be removed from the country next year, the military will have a “residual” role in Afghanistan for many years to come. This will be decided by his successor and the National Security Council in the autumn.
“If we lost the confidence of the Afghan people because we reneged on the promises we have made then I think we would have cause to worry about that,” he said.
Sir David leaves the military following a bitter row over defence spending which has been heavily cut by the Coalition.
The recent Spending Round – which set expenditure for the 2015-16 financial year – was not as brutal as expected for the military with spending frozen. However, Sir David warns that any further cuts will undermine the country’s security strategy.