London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The creation of no-fly zones in Syria would have little impact on the conflict, the outgoing head of the British military said yesterday, warning that attacks on ground targets would risk triggering a wider war.
General Sir David Richards, who is shortly to step down as the chief of staff of the UK’s armed forces, told London’s Daily Telegraph: “If you wanted to have the material impact on the Syrian regime’s calculations that some people seek, a no fly zone per se is insufficient.”
Instead, the Syrian government’s ground forces, especially its armored fighting vehicles, would have to be attacked, which he said risked embroiling the UK and its partners in a full-scale war.
General Richards said: “You have to establish a ground control zone. You have to take out their air defences. You also have to make sure they can’t manoeuvre—which means you have to take out their tanks, and their armoured personnel carriers and all the other things that are actually doing the damage.
“If you want to have the material effect that people seek you have to be able to hit ground targets and so you would be going to war if that is what you want to do,” he warned.
He also warned that the complexity of the situation in Syria and the lack of a clear political objective were serious obstacles to any outside intervention in the conflict.
In particular, General Richards highlighted the fractious nature of the opposition to Bashar Al-Assad’s government, which has been riven by disputes between the different groups making up the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
FSA units have also clashed with Islamist militias like Jabhat Al-Nusra, which is linked to Al-Qaeda, and has been declared a terrorist organization by the US.
He said: “There is a lack of international consensus on how to take this forward…we are trying to cohere the opposition groups, but they are difficult to cohere because there are many different dimensions to them.”
“So it is work in progress, so I am very clear in my military advice to the government that we need to understand what the political objective is before we can sensibly recommend what military effort and forces should be applied to it,” he added
The UK and France previously took the lead within Europe in pressing for the expansion of military assistance to Syria’s rebels, and played an instrumental role in overturning the European Union’s embargo on supplying arms to the Syrian opposition.
However, in recent weeks, the British government has changed direction, showing reluctance to involve itself in the conflict directly, preferring instead to focus on the provision of humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees.
British Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly abandoned a pledge to arm the FSA this week following consultations with senior military leadership, including General Sir David Richards, leaving him open to accusations of “betrayal” by FSA chief Salim Idris.