Cameron’s Syrian rebels claim under renewed scrutiny

Military officials fear ‘70,000 rebels ready to fight Isis’ claim could be seen as misleading

Britain’s prime minister David Cameron  and his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borissov (left) visit Bulgaria’s border with Turkey near the Lesovo crossing point, where they saw the enhanced efforts to secure the European Union’s external frontiers, on Friday.  Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Britain’s prime minister David Cameron and his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borissov (left) visit Bulgaria’s border with Turkey near the Lesovo crossing point, where they saw the enhanced efforts to secure the European Union’s external frontiers, on Friday. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

 

British prime minister David Cameron’s claim that 70,000 Syrian rebels are ready to fight Islamic State has come under renewed scrutiny following reports that military officials warned against using the figure.

The Times reported on Friday that officials expressed concern that the claim could become a hostage to fortune similar to Tony Blair’s “dodgy dossier” in 2003, which said Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.

The military officials did not dispute the figure of 70,000, which Mr Cameron said was independently verified by the joint intelligence committee, the group of officials in the cabinet office who oversee the work of Britain’s intelligence agencies.

They feared, however, that the use of a specific figure could give the misleading impression that the prime minister was referring to a ready-made army, as opposed to a disparate collection of more than 100 separate groups.

The Times quoted a Whitehall source as saying: “There were ministry of defence officials who maybe felt scarred after the previous dossier. They looked at the latest text and said that [the 70,000 figure] could become the ‘45 minutes’ moment of this document.”

Independent defence experts suggest that the figure of 70,000 “moderate” Syrian rebel fighters could be accurate, depending on the definition of the word “moderate”. But they belong to such ideologically diverse groups and are dispersed so widely throughout the country that they could not easily be brought together as a cohesive force to fight Islamic State, also known as Isis or Isil.

Besides, some Syrian rebels fear that, if they turn towards fighting Islamic State now, the forces of Bashar al-Assad will seize the opportunity to attack them.

A Downing Street spokesman said that military officials did not express concerns over the 70,000 figure to the prime minister. “The ministry of defence did not raise concerns with No 10 on whether this figure should be included in the prime minister’s response to the foreign affairs committee,” he said.

Mr Cameron said on Friday that British air strikes against Isis in Syria would help to bring a political settlement to the country. Speaking during a visit to Bulgaria, the prime minister said that, although a political settlement was crucial, the international alliance could not wait for that before taking action against Islamic State, which he refers to as Daesh.

“We do need to have a moderate opposition in Syria that can be part of the future government. So the political process and the action against Daesh to keep us safe at home go hand in hand,” he said.

Although some Syrian opposition figures have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of Britain’s extension of its air campaign against Islamic State into Syria, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday that it would make an important difference.

“Britain adds more strength to the fight against Isil and I welcome that. I think no one believes that military air strikes will be enough in the fight against Isil, but it is important because it is contributing to degrading Isil and to limit their military capacities,” he told the BBC.