Ministry of Defence (MoD) sources warned Prime Minister David Cameron that his claim there are 70,000 Syrian fighters ready to take on Islamic State was misleading before the House of Commons debated whether to engage in airstrikes, it has emerged. A source has said: “It’s got 45 minutes written all over it”.
Mr Cameron has made no secret of the fact that he believes airstrikes in Syria to be the right course of action, but in setting about rallying parliamentarians in the House of Commons to give the go-ahead he has engaged in what others have termed a “PR” exercise.
In a written statement to the Commons foreign affairs committee published on the 26th November, the Prime Minister wrote: “Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.”
On the same day, he addressed members of Parliament, setting out his case for action in Syria. He told them: “We believe there are around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters – principally the Free Syrian Army – who do not belong to extremist groups, and with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on ISIL.”
In his statement Mr. Cameron said the figure had been reached by intelligence analysis by the government’s Joint Intelligence Committee, a high-level umbrella group for the country’s intelligence services which receives intelligence itself from other bodies including the Ministry of Defence.
Now it has emerged that the Ministry of Defence explicitly asked him to take the claim out of his speech to the Commons. According to the Mirror, the MoD believed the figure was too high based on intelligence from Lebanese officials. But their objections were overruled by the Joint Intelligence Committee.
The availability of ground forces in Syria was key to Mr Cameron’s case for military action in Syria. Airstrikes against the Islamic State can only achieve so much; troops on the ground are required if those strikes were to be converted into territorial gains.
“It’s got 45 minutes written all over it,” the MoD source said.
“Cameron didn’t think this through. If he really didn’t know about the MoD’s worries, he should have asked more questions about it.”
Responding to the allegation, an intelligence committee spokesperson said of the allegation: “The 70,000 figure was produced by the Joint Intelligence Committee, which includes in its membership officials from the Ministry of Defence.
“The Ministry of Defence did not raise concerns with No10 on whether this figure should be included in the PM’s response to the Foreign Affairs Committee”.
Mr Cameron has come under repeated attack this past week for the claim. Earlier this week the Independent’s Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk wrote: “Not since Hitler ordered General Walther Wenck to send his non-existent 12th Army to rescue him from the Red Army in Berlin has a European leader believed in military fantasies as PR Dave Cameron did last week.
“Telling the House of Commons about the 70,000 “moderate” fighters deployed in Syria was not just lying […] but something approaching burlesque. It was whimsy – ridiculous, comic, grotesque, ludicrous. It came close to a unique form of tragic pantomime.
“At one point last week, one of Cameron’s satraps was even referring to this phantom army as “ground troops”. I doubt if there are 700 active “moderate” foot soldiers in Syria – and I am being very generous, for the figure may be nearer 70 – let alone 70,000.”
When pressed on the figure during Wednesday’s debate, the Prime Minister again insisted that the number was accurate, telling MPs that the majority of the forces were with the Free Syrian Army, while a further 20,000 were Kurdish fighters.
But sources who know the region inside out have repeatedly said that the Free Syrian Army doesn’t exist. As far back as 2013 Aron Lund, an expert on Syrian opposition movements, wrote that the Free Syrian Army is now, and has never been anything more than, a “branding exercise.”
“The FSA was created by Col. Riad el-Asaad and a few other Syrian military defectors in July 2011, in what may or may not have been a Turkish intelligence operation,” he said.
“From summer onwards, new rebel factions started popping up in hundreds of little villages and city neighborhoods inside Syria, as an ever-growing number of local demonstrators were provoked into self-defense.
“While the new groups almost invariably grew out of a local context, and organized entirely on their own, most of them also declared themselves to be part of the FSA. They adopted its logotype, and would often publicly pledge allegiance to Col. Riad el-Asaad. As a branding operation, the FSA was a extraordinary success – but in most cases, the new “FSA brigades” had no connection whatsoever to their purported supreme commander in Turkey. In reality, what was emerging was a sprawling leaderless resistance of local fighters who shared only some common goals and an assemblage of FSA-inspired symbols.
“But by mid-2012, the brand seemed to have run its course, as people soured on Col. Asaad and his exiles. The FSA term slowly began to slip out of use. By the end of the year, most of the big armed groups in Syria had stopped using it altogether, and one by one, they dropped or redesigned the old FSA symbols from their websites, logotypes, shoulder patches and letterheads. Their symbolic connection to the FSA leaders in Turkey was broken – and since no connection at all had existed outside the world of symbols, that was the end of that story.”
Similarly Robert Fisk last year told Australia’s ABC News: “The Free Syrian Army I think drinks a lot of coffee in Istanbul. I have never come across even prisoners of the Free Syrian Army.”
Nevertheless, airstrikes against Islamic State have now commenced, with British fighter-bombers launching strikes from RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus.
The scale of British involvement is notable when compared to other nations involved in the strikes, with just four Tornado bombers taking part in the first mission against the Islamic State in Syria. The Russian airforce by contrast can attack hundreds of targets a day, according to official figures.