War with Isis: Government quashes ex-Army head's call for 'troops on the ground'

Lord Dannett urged ministers to 'think the previously unthinkable'

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The Government has reacted quickly to quash any suggestion that Britain should send ground troops to fight Isis in Iraq and Syria after a former head of the Army urged ministers to “think the previously unthinkable”.

Lord Dannatt said he felt air strikes had failed to stop the advance of the extremist organisation, and called for a debate on deploying up to 5,000 infantry. “We have reached a point when we must think the previously unthinkable and consider that British troops, acting as part of an international coalition, may be required to mount a ground campaign,” he said in a Mail on Sunday article.

His call to arms was rejected by the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, who told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that the war had to be won by those most affected, namely the Syrians and Iraqis themselves. 

The Government needed to see what more could be done in terms of training, intelligence and equipment, he said, “but the answer to this is not going to be British troops on the ground”.

The Conservative former Defence Secretary Liam Fox said boots on the ground would require the United States as the “prime mover”. “That is out of the question under the Obama presidency,” he told Sky News.

“Even if he were to be persuaded that it was the right thing to do, and I’m not sure at all that he is, then I don’t think he would be willing in the last year or so of his presidency to have that as his legacy, given that he came to office saying he was going to withdraw America,” Mr Fox said. He added that countries in the Middle East that said they didn’t want American influence in the region “are now really changing their tune”.

Isis has recently gained control of the ancient town of Palmyra, in Syria, and the Iraqi city of Ramadi.

Lord Dannatt said: “In light of this terrifying scenario, how much longer can Britain and the US continue to show such a lack of commitment to defeating Isis militarily?”

Lord Dannatt, who was Chief of the General Staff between 2006 and 2009, added that he was not a “gung-ho general who says, ‘Just send the boys in and don’t worry about the body bags’.”

But “faced with such a lethal and uncompromising enemy” and with the lack of political and diplomatic solutions available, he said: “We can no longer rule out boots on the ground.”

He suggested sending  5,000 troops with attack helicopters, artillery and mortars.

Isis has “chosen to hold ground, and as such its troops are not classic insurgents but more akin to conventional soldiers,” he said. They were “not moving in the shadows or hiding among civilians” like the Taliban in Afghanistan, he added, but “operated in fully formed units and used conventional tactics, thereby presenting targets for international military forces to strike”.

Political leaders avoided the “politically toxic” question during the election campaign but David Cameron should begin planning, he said.

“What I am calling for is for a public and political debate, so that arguments for and against the deployment of Western ground forces can be aired,” he added.