Britain risks being dragged into war with Syria if it tries to rein in the forces of President Bashar Assad and arm rebels, the outgoing head of the UK's armed forces has said.
General Sir David Richards, who is stepping down as Chief of the Defence Staff, said that enforcing no-fly-zones over the Middle East country would be "insufficient" alone to restrain regime forces and that ground targets would have to be hit.
He also said that British forces "would have to act" if the Baathist regime suddenly collapsed, plunging the country into chaos, to prevent its chemical weapons falling into the hands of al Qaida and other terrorist groups.
The 61-year-old general told the Daily Telegraph that there was "a lack of international consensus" over how to act over Syria but a shared reluctance to see Western boots on the ground.
But he added: "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. You have to be able, as we did successfully in Libya, to hit ground targets.
"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."
Tensions over Syria dominated the G8 gathering in Northern Ireland last month, which took place in the wake of an announcement by US president Barack Obama that the US was ready to arm the rebels despite Moscow's opposition. Prime Minister David Cameron said Assad had "blood on his hands" and insisted it was "unthinkable" the dictator could play any part in the nation's future.
In an interview with the Sun, Gen Richards said that British forces could also be sent to the country to prevent chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands. He told the paper: "The risk of terrorism is becoming more and more dominant in our strategic vision for what we might do in Syria. If that risk develops, we would almost certainly have to act to mitigate it and we are ready to do so. I think it is a very big question. If we saw chemical weapons proliferate as a result of what is happening in Syria then we would have to act."
He added: "Some could characterise that, even though it might be for a limited period, as a war".
Last week British spy chiefs warned 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 intelligence agencies, said there was "serious concern" about the security of the "vast stockpiles" of chemical weapons amassed by the regime.