Syria conflict: UK planned to train and equip 100,000 rebels

"The plan was called Extract, Equip, Train... a shock and awe attack that would allow the Syrians themselves to defeat Assad", reports Nick Hopkins

The UK drew up plans to train and equip a 100,000-strong Syrian rebel army to defeat President Bashar al-Assad, BBC Newsnight can reveal.

The secret initiative, put forward two years ago, was the brainchild of the then most senior UK military officer, General Sir David Richards.

It was considered by the PM and the National Security Council, as well as US officials, but was deemed too risky.

The UK government did not respond to a request for comment.

Lord Richards, as he is now, believed his proposal could stem the civilian bloodshed in Syria as rebels fought troops loyal to Mr Assad.

The idea was considered by David Cameron and Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, and sent to the National Security Council, Whitehall sources said.

Free Syrian Army fighters prepare weapons Rebel fighters have also been stockpiling weapons in remote areas

It was also put to senior figures in Washington, including General Martin Dempsey, the US's most senior military officer.

Start Quote

Western policymakers in a sense have got to have the courage to do nothing and to work on what comes after the civil war”

End Quote Professor Michael Clarke Royal United Services Institute think tank

While it was thought to be too radical at the time, US President Barack Obama said last week he was seeking $500m (£291m) funding to train Syrian rebels - an echo of Lord Richards' plan.

Insiders have told BBC Newsnight that Lord Richards, then chief of the defence staff but since retired from the military, warned Downing Street there were only two ways to end the Syrian civil war quickly - to let President Assad win, or to defeat him.

'Extract, equip, train'

With ministers having pledged not to commit British "boots on the ground", his initiative proposed vetting and training a substantial army of moderate Syrian rebels at bases in Turkey and Jordan.

Mr Cameron was told the "extract, equip, train" plan would involve an international coalition.

It would take a year, but this would buy time for an alternative Syrian government to be formed in exile, the PM was told.

General Sir David Richards pictured in 2006 in Afghanistan Lord Richards was also once Nato commander in Afghanistan

Once the Syrian force was ready, it would march on Damascus, with the cover of fighter jets from the West and Gulf allies.

The plan envisaged a "shock and awe" campaign, similar to the one that routed Saddam's military in 2003, but spearheaded by Syrians.

Opportunity 'missed'

Though the plan was put to one side at the time, Mr Cameron was later persuaded to consider military action when evidence emerged of chemical weapons use in Syria.

However, MPs voted against giving authority for a direct intervention last August.

The US and UK accused the Assad government of being behind the attacks, but Damascus blamed rebel groups.

Residents view damage in a Damascus suburb Syria's conflict has laid waste to vast areas of towns

Monzer Akbik, spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition alliance, said: "The international community did not intervene to prevent those crimes and at the same time did not actively support the moderate elements on the ground.

"A huge opportunity was missed and that opportunity could have saved tens of thousands of lives actually and could have saved also a huge humanitarian catastrophe."

'No good options'

Professor Michael Clarke, of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, added: "We have missed the opportunity to train an anti-Assad force that would have real influence in Syria when he is removed, as he will be.

"I think there was an opportunity two or three years ago to have become involved in a reasonably positive way, but it was dangerous and swimming against the broader tide of history… and the costs and the uncertainties were very high."

Workers erect pro-Assad campaign billboards in Damascus (11/05/14) President Assad won a third term in office last month

He said it was now too late for the West to get involved.

"Western policymakers in a sense have got to have the courage to do nothing and to work on what comes after the civil war," he said.

"There are no good options over Syria. It is a slow-motion road accident."

Tens of thousands of people have died and millions more have been displaced in three years of civil war in Syria.

More on This Story

Syria conflict

More UK stories

RSS

Features & Analysis

  • Stained glass of man with swordFrance 1 England 0

    The most important battle you have probably never heard of


  • Golden retriever10 things

    Dogs get jealous, and nine more nuggets from the week's news


  • Pro-Israel demonstrators shout slogans while protesting in Berlin - 25 July 2014Holocaust guilt

    Gaza conflict leaves Germans confused over who to support


  • The emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-SabahFreedoms fear

    Growing concern for rights as Kuwait revokes citizenships


Elsewhere on the BBC

  • CastleRoyal real estate

    No longer reserved for kings and queens, some find living in a castle simply divine

Programmes

  • Leader of Hamas Khaled MeshaalHARDtalk Watch

    BBC exclusive: Hamas leader on the eagerness to end bloodshed in Gaza

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.