Exclusive: UK military in talks to help Syria rebels

International coalition could offer air and sea support as well as military training

A plan to provide military training to the Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime and support them with air and naval power is being drawn up by an international coalition including Britain, The Independent has learnt.

The prospect of Western intervention comes as opposition groups, which have been disorganised and divided, at long last formed an umbrella political group and a command structure for their militias. Their foreign backers are said to believe that the 22-month-long civil war has now reached a tipping point and it has become imperative to offer help to the revolutionaries to enable them to make a final push against the regime.

The head of Britain’s armed forces, General Sir David Richards, hosted a confidential meeting in London a few weeks ago attended by the military chiefs of France, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the UAE, and a three-star American general, in which the strategy was discussed at length. Other UK government departments and their counterparts in allied states in the mission have also been holding extensive meetings on the issue.

The commanders’ conference was held at the request of the Prime Minister, according to senior Whitehall sources. David Cameron is said to be determined that more should be done by Britain to bring to an end the bloody strife which has claimed 40,000 lives so far and made millions homeless.

One key concern is the onset of winter, with 2.5 million people inside Syria  needing help and 1.5 million internally displaced by the fighting, according to the UN. More than 100,000, it is estimated, will be gathering at borders with neighbouring states which are already hosting refugees and refusing to take them in.

There is also a growing belief among the Western backers of the opposition that intervention in some form is necessary now to influence the future political shape of Syria. Jihadist groups among the rebels, some like Jabhat al-Nusra linked to al-Qa’ida, have steadily gained in power and influence because of their access to weapons and money coming from the Gulf states putting more secular groups at a severe disadvantage.

The Obama administration is considering  proscribing Al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation, making it illegal for American citizens to fund it and sending a warning message to Arab states not to back it. At the same time Western help will be directed at and strengthen the moderate groups. The unified rebel command structure set up in Turkey, at the behest of the US and UK, has excluded the Islamist militias.

Britain, France and the US have agreed that none of their countries would have “boots on the ground” to help the rebels. The training camps can be set up in Turkey. However, the use of air and maritime force would, in itself, be highly controversial and likely to lead to charges that, as in Libya, the West is carrying out regime change by force.

Furthermore, any such military action will have to take place without United Nations authorisation, with Russia and China highly unlikely to back a resolution after their experience over Libya where they agreed to a “no-fly zone” only to see it turn into a Nato bombing campaign lasting months.

The plan will also draw accusations that the decision to station Nato Patriot missile defence systems at the Syrian border, at the request of Turkey, was, in reality, to camouflage intervention. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Foreign Secretary William Hague and the alliance’s Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, had all insisted at a meeting in Brussels last week that the deployment was a purely defensive measure. British defence sources maintain that Ankara would have made the request even without the plan to aid the rebels. Neither Germany nor the Netherlands, which will be deploying the Patriots, have been part of the secret Syria talks.

There has been a steady flow of briefings from the US that the Damascus regime is readying its stock of chemical weapons. Ms Clinton stated that a desperate Assad may resort to such an attack, while President Obama has warned of a “red line” on chemical weapons, saying the use of them will not be tolerated.

However, there is a growing belief that the Russians, who had steadfastly backed the regime, are now reconciled to a future Syria without Assad. Officials in Ankara say that a visit by President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Turkey last week went extremely well. Speaking in Istanbul, President Putin said: “We are not lawyers for the Syrian leadership’s actions; we are concerned with other things, namely what will happen in the future.”

British and American officials say that the Kremlin’s concerns about chaos following the departure of Assad, with jihadists emerging in control, is shared by governments in the West and Russian help will be needed in averting a bloody endgame.

Intervention, they say, is now inevitable. Le Figaro newspaper has reported that French military advisers have met rebel groups just across the Lebanese border. The US is said to have stockpiled weapons retrieved in Libya for future supply to Syria.

One senior Whitehall official said: “The efforts have so far been unco-ordinated without any focused objective. If this is worth doing, then it is worth doing professionally; training the FSA and providing them with air and maritime support when necessary.

“Obviously there are risks involved in such a mission, but there is enough capability to accomplish this.

“We are aware of the Russian view. We know that Syria is an important strategic ally for them. But it will not remain an ally if the jihadists take over after Assad goes, we are sure they realise this. We still hope they can persuade Assad to leave and an agreement can be formed on the future of the country.”

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