Syria crisis: British and US failure there led to creation of Isis, says former military chief General Sir David Richards

Allies accused of spurring on rebels but failing to give them the means to overthrow President Assad

defence correspondent

Britain and America encouraged the rebels in Syria to keep fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime while denying them the means to achieve victory - a failure of policy which created the conditions for the bloody ascent of Isis, General Sir David Richards, the former head of the armed forces has claimed.

The UK and US still did not appear to have a clear strategy, held the former Chief of Defence Staff, for countering the extremists who had created the Islamist State across swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq and carried out barbarous acts such as the murder of photojournalist James Foley. There was still a lack of understanding, he warned, of the full extent of the threat being faced from Isis.

The General, who is now Lord Richards of Herstmoncioux, stated that in Syria “what we did was enough to allow the opposition groups to maintain an effort, but it was never enough to let them win.” The policy adopted by Washington and London and their Middle-Eastern allies amounted to:  “keep the war alive, but not let the good guys win. Through frustration, Isis has grown and now it's spread to Iraq.”

The Independent exclusively reported in December 2012 that contingency plans had been drawn up to help the Syrian opposition after Gen Richards hosted a confidential meeting in London  attended by the military chiefs of France, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the UAE, and a three-star American general. The strategy under discussion was the training of rebel fighters from moderate groups and supporting them with air and naval power on operations.

The plan was subsequently discussed at highest levels in Washington, but not implemented. Meanwhile extremist groups such as Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra rapidly gained in strength and influence, driving out the moderate battalions and imposing fundamentalist rule.

UN observers watch clashes between Syrian forces and rebels on the Quneitra border UN observers watch clashes between Syrian forces and rebels on the Quneitra border (Getty)
Lord Richards, a highly respected commander who was the only Briton to have been in overall charge of American troops since the Second World War, said: “That option was not taken forward by the Government here, or in America. I think we could have nipped it in the bud probably then, but it was a huge bill and I understood why governments were reluctant to do it. They hoped it wouldn't come any further”.

In an interview with Muslim News newspaper, he continued: “We did provide an option to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet here, that, apparently, which I didn't know about, was discussed with the Americans. And it was to do it properly, if you like. [Instead] what we did was enough to allow the opposition groups to maintain an effort, but it was never enough to let them win.”

The contingency plan, Lord Richards continued, would have meant “the full works. This was to ensure that within about a year, they would be capable of taking on, by then, a demoralised Assad regime.” He acknowledged there were “definitely risks” about his plan, but added: “You can't have it both ways.... Sometimes you have to act decisively, quickly and this was, as I argued, part of a contingency plan which, perhaps, would have avoided this situation with Isis.”

On the current stance of the US and UK, the commander said: “I know what they want to happen, which is for there to be peace and for Isis to be squeezed back into irrelevance. I think this is a much bigger challenge than it was two years ago and I think will require very big responses and I'm worried at the moment that we don't understand the scale of the problem.”

Fighters from ISIS marching in Raqqa, Syria Fighters from ISIS marching in Raqqa, Syria
Lord Richards pointed out that lessons needed to be learned from the 2003 Iraq war. One byproduct was the boost for Islamist terrorism: the invasion by the US and Britain “liberated forces that we're still seeing playing out today, nine years later. Iraq was ruled by, yes, a brutal dictator, but he contained all these forces and he contained, as a semi-secular leader, Iranian ambitions in the region.”

The current reluctance of committing British troops in overseas wars after the long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan is not going to last, stressed Lord Richards: “If you think that we will never have boots on the ground ever again anywhere, forget it, history is not being rewritten. Yes, at the moment, the balance is against doing that and rightly so. There's no need right now for British infantry say, to go into a country in any numbers to fight as we have done.”

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