PM considered plan to train and arm 100,000 Syrian rebels

Secret plan came from army top brass: create rebel army so Syrians could defeat Assad themselves

Syrian rebels take cover behind a barricade in Aleppo
(Image credit: JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

David Cameron considered arming and training a 100,000-strong army of Syrian rebels to defeat president Bashar al-Assad, it has emerged. The secret plan was proposed two years ago but rejected as being too risky, says the BBC’s Newsnight.

The initiative was the brainchild of General Sir David Richards, now Lord Richards, at the time the UK’s most senior military officer. It was seriously considered by the Prime Minister, the National Security Council and US officials.

Richards’s “extract, equip, train” plan involved an international coalition turning the rebels into a concerted fighting force at camps set up in Turkey and Jordan. He intended to vet the participants to ensure they were moderates.

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It would take a year, Richards believed. Then, the troops would return to Syria for a “shock and awe” campaign with Syrian fighters on the ground and support from fighter jets supplied by Gulf states and the West.

During the training period, there would be time for an alternative Syrian government to be formed in exile.

Monzer Akbik, from the opposition group the Syrian National Coalition, said: “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.

“The international community did not intervene to prevent those crimes and at the same time it did not actively support the moderate elements on the ground.”

Professor Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute told the BBC that it was too late now for a plan which would have been “dangerous”. He said: “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.”

In three years of civil war in Syria, tens of thousands have died and millions more have been displaced.

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