Syria air stirkes: MoD disputed David Cameron's claim there are 70,000 moderate rebels

Reports claim senior defence staff described the number as 'misleading' and too high, based on reports from intelligence officers based in Lebanon

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The Ministry of Defence reportedly asked for the controversial claim that there are 70,000 moderate rebels in Syria to be removed from the Prime Minister’s statement to MPs in which he made the case for air strikes on Isis.

The Sun newspaper, citing a Whitehall source, reported that senior defence staff had described the number as “misleading” and too high, based on reports from intelligence officers based in Lebanon.

However, their views were over-ruled during discussions at a meeting of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which includes the heads of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ along with senior military and Foreign Office staff.

The claim that there were 70,000 moderate rebel fighters in Syria was key, as it suggested there was a force big enough to perform the “boots-on-the-ground” role in the war against Isis and British troops would not be required.

The Whitehall source compared the figure to Tony Blair’s “dodgy dossier”, which made the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and which wrongly said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed within 45 minutes.

“It’s got 45 minutes written all over it. [David] Cameron didn’t think this through,” the source told The Sun.

“If he really didn’t know about the MoD’s worries, he should have asked more questions about it.”

The picture in Syria is confused with a number of different groups fighting local conflicts. In some places moderates are allied with Islamists against President Bashar Assad’s forces, while in other areas the same groups are fighting each other.

And it is further complicated by some fighters pretending to be Islamists in order to get better weapons and funding and non-Islamists joining extremist groups, again because they tend to be better equipped.

Mr Cameron told the Commons on Wednesday that “the majority” of the 70,000 moderate fighters he had referred to previously were members of a leading rebel group, the Free Syrian Army.

He said he was “not arguing that all of these 70,000 are ideal partners” but were “people we can work with”.

In a statement, a Downing Street spokeswoman did not deny the report but said the MoD had not raised any concerns directly with the Prime Minister’s office.

“The 70,000 figure was produced by the Joint Intelligence Committee, which includes in its membership officials from the Ministry of Defence,” it said.

“The Ministry of Defence did not raise concerns with No 10 on whether this figure should be included in the PM's response to the Foreign Affairs Committee.”