BRITISH troops could be deployed to intervene in Syria in the event of a major humanitarian crisis, the head of the armed forces said yesterday.
General Sir David Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said contingency plans were being drawn up in case the onset of winter saw a worsening of conditions on the ground.
He indicated that any intervention would be limited and would need the support of people inside Syria in the areas where assistance was being provided.
Nevertheless such a move would be seen as a potential step towards a full-scale military intervention bringing British forces directly into conflict with the regime of president Bashar Assad.
“It would be a huge effort. We would be very cautious about it,” he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show. “There is no ultimately military reason why one shouldn’t and I know that all these options are quite rightly being examined. but we are some way off.”
He said he expected the humanitarian situation to deteriorate over the winter which could lead to calls to intervene in a limited way.
“Obviously we develop contingency plans to look at all these things. It is my job to make sure that these options are continually brushed over to make sure that we can deliver them and they are credible,” he said.
“The main thing for now that we are all focusing on is to contain the crisis so that it doesn’t spill over into countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey.
“That’s our primary focus but that would also accommodate a humanitarian crisis because we could help deal with that through that primary mechanism. It is certainly something we have got to look at.
“We are keeping our awareness levels very high and in the meanwhile we are preparing plans to make sure that when some disaster happens we are able to deal with it.”
He said that it was up to political leaders internationally to decide what the next steps should be.
“The international community and the political leaders need to decide what they want to do and then people like me can develop plans to meet those requirements. At the same time the people inside Syria must agree,” he said.
His intervention comes amid growing signs of frustration in Downing Street at the inability of the international community to halt the fighting which has led to tens of thousands of deaths.
Following a visit last week to the region by David Cameron, officials made clear that they were looking at all option
Meanwhile, the Israeli military has fired a missile into Syria, the first time Israel has been drawn into the fighting in the neighbouring country.
The military said it fired the missile as a warning shot yesterday after a stray mortar from Syria hit a military post in the Golan Heights.
Israel captured the area from Syria in the 1967 war, known as the Six-Day War, and subsequently annexed it.
The military says no damage or injuries were reported inside Israel.
A string of mortar shells have struck the Golan Heights during the Syrian civil war. Israel views the fire as accidental, but nonetheless has warned that it holds Syria responsible.
Israel and Syria are bitter foes who have fought several wars, but their shared border has been mostly quiet since a 1974 cease-fire. Still, Israel worries that Syria’s civil war could spill across into the Golan Heights, and repeated errant fire has intensified that concern.
Israel fears that if the Syrian president’s regime is toppled, the country could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists or descend into sectarian warfare, destabilising the region.