Downing Street has conceded there could be elements of Islamist extremism among the 70,000 so-called “moderate” fighters David Cameron claims are ready to seize Isis-held territory as a result of British air strikes.
On the eve of the House of Commons vote on military action, Mr Cameron’s official spokeswoman accepted that there were “a range of political views” among the forces ranged against Isis.
She added that the situation on the ground was not “black and white” and said the Government defined “moderates” simply as groups who rejected terrorism and supported a “pluralistic” Syria.
Mr Cameron’s assertion is due to come under intense scrutiny in the debate on 2 December amid signs that some Labour MPs who previously supported military action may be wavering.
Labour sources said they now expected that about 30 to 40 of their MPs would vote with the Government, including the shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle.
However, others were said to be coming under intense pressure to abstain or vote against the motion despite nominally having a “free vote”.
In another setback for the Prime Minister, the cross-party Foreign Affairs Select Committee voted not to endorse a motion that backing air strikes by a four-to-three majority. It was a report by the committee that first raised concerns about the Government’s plan and led to Mr Cameron laying out his detailed case for air strikes in Syria last week.
At the same time, the SNP announced details of a cross-party amendment, backed by the Tory Foreign Affairs Committee member John Baron, rejecting air strikes and stating that Parliament “does not believe that the case for the UK’s participation in the air campaign has been established”.
Giving evidence to MPs, one of Britain’s most senior military commanders questioned the exact make-up of David Cameron’s 70,000 figure.
Lt Gen Gordon Messenger said there was a “spectrum of extremism” within Syria and could not confirm whether the so-called moderate forces included fighters from Islamist groups the Islamic Front or Ahrar al-Sham.
“Those who are seen to be inside the 70,000 are those that are seen to be moderate, those that we are prepared to accept might be part of a political process,” Lt Gen Messenger said. He added that the 70,000 were “not a coherent force”.
“We don’t want to directly link air strikes at the heart of Isil with the idea that there is an imminent ground force about to exploit the effect of that. We can say that by applying pressure to Isil, we can relieve pressure on those moderate oppositions.”
The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the committee that the 70,000 cited by Mr Cameron excluded “those on the extreme side” such as the al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
However, Mr Fallon said they were not “all in one place” or “a new model army, drilled outside the walls of Raqqa”.
“Is there a single commander who can weld all this together as Lawrence of Arabia tried to do 100 years ago – of that I’m not sure,” he told the select committee.
“They are spread through Syria: more than 20,000 in the Free Syrian Army in the north, about 20,000 in the Southern Front commanded by [FSA commander Bashar] al-Zoubi.”
Mr Fallon told MPs that there were 15 “Isil-inspired or Isil-directed” attacks around the world last year, but “this year there have already been 150, and we’ve another month to go, so the threat has intensified”.
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