Syria crisis: no option off the table, says Hammond

Defence secretary responds to outgoing armed forces chief’s remark that Britain risks being dragged into war if it tries to arm rebels, but says UK troops unlikely to be deployed

No option is being taken off the table when considering how best to approach the situation in Syria, the defence secretary has said.

But Philip Hammond said it appeared unlikely that British troops would be deployed in the country.

Hammond’s comments come after the outgoing head of the UK’s armed forces said Britain risks being dragged into war with Syria if it tries to rein in the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and arm rebels.

General Sir David Richards, chief of the defence staff, on Thursday officially handed over the role to General Sir Nicholas Houghton at a parade in central London.

Gen Richards agreed that no option was being taken off the table, but admitted that if it was found that chemical weapons were being stockpiled, Britain would have to act.

Last week British spy chiefs warned that Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of al-Qaida militants if Assad was toppled, with potentially “catastrophic” consequences.

The parliamentary intelligence and security committee (ISC), which oversees the work of the spy agencies, said there was “serious concern” about the security of the “vast stockpiles” of chemical weapons amassed by the regime.

Hammond, who attended Thursday’s parade and commended Gen Richards’ time as armed forces chief, said: “I think it’s very unlikely that we would see boots on the ground (in Syria), but we must never take any of the options off the table.

“The military role and the Ministry of Defence role is to plan for contingencies.

“It’s not our job to decide how and when and if to deploy forces in any particular role, but to make sure that the prime minister and the national security council have the maximum range of options open to them so that they can use military options as part of a much broader palette of diplomatic and political initiatives to try to achieve what we all want to achieve, which is peace and stability in that region of the world.”

On Thursday, Gen Richards described the situation in Syria as a “huge humanitarian tragedy” and said the first thing to do was to contain the situation better, particularly in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.

“First of all the UK won’t do anything by itself; it will act with allies, in particular with the USA,” he said.

“We are not taking anything off the table, but we are being very cautious for reasons I am sure everyone will understand.”

Asked if Britain would have to get involved to clean up chemical weapons, he added: “I think if that sort of thing happened we’d almost invariably have to become involved in all our interests but most important for the people of Syria.”

David Cameron told ITV News, when asked if Britain was preparing for war in Syria: “No, what we are doing is we are helping the Syrian opposition – the official opposition …read more