Britain could intervene militarily in Syria in the next few months, the country’s most senior general has said.
Gen Sir David Richards said there were contingency plans in place for a “very limited” response in the case of a worsening humanitarian situation in Syria.
The admission is the most serious warning yet that Britain is preparing for some sort of military involvement in the country. In the past week, British policy has moved from laying out plans to help organise the disparate rebel groups to discussing intervention.
Attention will now turn to a meeting of the National Security Council this week that will be devoted to the civil war.
The new, more assertive stance, led personally by David Cameron, has surprised some allies, including the US, which remains hesitant to intervene. In an interview on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One, Gen Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff, suggested that Britain could intervene militarily this winter when desert temperatures fall and lives are put at risk.
He said it would be a “huge effort”, adding: “The humanitarian situation this winter I think will deteriorate and that may well provoke calls to intervene in a limited way.
“But no, there’s no ultimately military reason why one shouldn’t and I know that all these options are, quite rightly, being examined.
“It’s not impossible and obviously we develop contingency plans to look at all these things.”
He added that “the main thing” Britain was focusing on was to ensure that the crisis does not “spill over into countries like Lebanon, Jordan [and] Turkey”.
Gen Richards confirmed that there could be British troops posted in countries neighbouring Syria. It’s certainly something that we’ve got to look at,” he said. “So we’re keeping our awareness levels very high and in the meanwhile we’re preparing plans to make sure that when some disaster happens, we’re able to deal with it.”
Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, also said that Britain had not ruled out military intervention in Syria, but stressed that the focus was still on overcoming objections from Russia and China to a resolution in the United Nations Security Council.
He told BBC’s Sunday Politics: “We don’t rule it out. At the moment we don’t have a legal basis for delivering military assistance to the rebels. This is something that the Prime Minister keeps asking us to test, the legal position, the practical military position, and we will continue to look at all options.”
Britain’s policy towards President Bashar al-Assad’s regime noticeably strengthened during a visit by Mr Cameron to the Middle East last week. Cabinet Office officials have been instructed to re-examine a European Union embargo banning arms sales to Syrian rebels to see if weapons can be supplied for “self-defence”, although officials insist that the Government will always respect international law.
Other options include whether “safe havens” can be established in Syria to offer protection to civilians. A no-fly zone over the country, as was imposed on Libya last year, is not seen as an option by Downing Street at present.
Malik al-Kurdi, deputy head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, said: “It’s very important that the British are coming on the scene.”