Syria crisis: British military chief to set out options for strikes

General Sir Nick Houghton poised to detail alternatives – but also to reiterate misgivings about entering conflict

The head of the British military will on Wednesday outline a series of arm’s-length options for targeted attacks against Syria that have been refined over several months to minimise the risk of retaliation from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

At a meeting of the national security council (NSC), the chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nick Houghton, is expected to tell David Cameron the UK could assist US forces with cruise missile strikes launched from submarines, warships and aircraft against targets such as command-and-control bunkers.

But Houghton is also expected to reiterate the military’s misgiving about entering into the conflict even if it can be proved beyond doubt that Assad was behind last week’s chemical attack in Ghouta, east of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

He is likely to highlight the potential for Assad’s regime to lash out with attacks of its own that could include attempts to strike Britain’s sovereign bases in Cyprus with Scud missiles.

“A number of military options will be provided to the prime minister,” said one Whitehall source. “They have been worked on for several months. The NSC will then have to ask itself: what will any future attacks actually achieve, and are we prepared for the potential consequences? These are political judgments, not military ones. Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us a lot about the dangers of getting involved in other people’s civil wars.”

Though the Ministry of Defence today refused to be drawn any of these issues, a team of specialists at the UK’s Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) in Northwood, north London, is known to have been working on a set of detailed contingency plans, liaising with counterparts in the US military to prepare credible options for action in Syria.

Nobody in Washington or London is prepared to countenance “boots on the ground”, and an air war against Assad’s well-equipped jet fighters and anti-aircraft defences is equally unappealing. So strategists have been looking at ways of hitting a limited number of regime targets over a short period with precision missiles and laser-guided bombs.

The hope is that these attacks would deter Assad from using chemical weapons and make it more difficult for him to launch them, even if he wanted to.

The US is reported to be considering a two-day campaign, according to the Washington Post – a timescale that chimes with British hopes any attacks would be seen as warning shots rather than the first steps in a broader campaign.

Though this limited action is unlikely to take place before MPs have had a chance to discuss the matter on Thursday, the momentum for striking sooner rather than later has been growing since the weekend.

Britain could offer warships and submarines equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which could be launched miles away from the Syrian coast. The Trafalgar-class submarine HMS Tireless is reported to be already in the region.

The RAF could be involved, too. During the Libyan …read more