- They cautioned could provoke revenge attacks home and abroad
- Also emerged Israel was taking precautions against possible Syrian attack
- They include bolstering missile defences and handing out gas masks
By Ian Drury
Britain risks sleep-walking into a full-scale war by launching missile strikes against Syria, former top brass warned last night.
Retired commanders cautioned that an ill-thought-out attack against President Assad's brutal regime could provoke revenge attacks at home and abroad.
Lord West of Spithead, a former First Sea Lord, General Lord Dannatt, a former head of the British Army, and Major General , a commander during the first Gulf War, all warned of the 'unintended consequences' of a military campaign.
Lord West of Spithead, a former First Sea Lord, General Lord Dannatt, a former head of the British Army, were among those warning of the unintended consequences of a military campaign
It also emerged that Israel was taking precautions against a possible Syrian attack, including bolstering missile defences and handing out gas masks to civilians.
A coalition spearheaded by the US, Britain and France is preparing to punish Assad for allegedly gassing to death hundreds of innocent people last week.
Defence chiefs favour a strike against important military installations, including airbases, arms dumps and communications hubs, using long-range cruise missiles fired from warships or submarines amassing in the Mediterranean.
The hope is that the attacks will deter Assad from using chemical weapons and make it more difficult for him to launch them in future.
But military grandees fear David Cameron and his allies might unwittingly escalate Syria's civil war into a regional conflict in the Middle East, or even a proxy Cold War with Damascus's key ally, Russia.
Assad might also be goaded into retaliating against UK bases in Cyprus. And a missile strike might encourage extremists to bring bloodshed to the streets of Britain.
Lord West, a former head of the Navy, said ministers should try to get Russia and China to agree to condemn Assad's chemical attacks in a UN Security Council Resolution.
A coalition spearheaded by the US, Britain and France is preparing to punish Assad for allegedly gassing to death hundreds of innocent people last week
The hope is that the attacks will deter Assad from using chemical weapons and make it more difficult for him to launch them in future
He said: 'We are moving inextricably towards military action. A strike might be a rap across the knuckles for Assad but will that be enough to make him stop? I have have very severe doubts.
'If he is deranged enough to have used chemical weapons on his own people, which is a loathsome thing, what is he likely to do if we strike against key targets in Syria?
'He might do something as mad as fire ballistic missiles against the air base in Cyprus. That then becomes an attack on a Nato ally, an attack on British sovereign territory, and that means war, doesn't it?'
He added: 'Politicians think they can control these things, but once you embark on military operations you cannot predict what will happen.
'We need to be very clear on our game plan what, at the end, is going to make our nation and the globe more secure, and ideally help the Syrian people.'
Hundreds died in the alleged chemical attacks on Wednesday, including many women and children
Activists say that somewhere near 1,300 were killed in the chemical weapons attack on Wednesday near Damascus. Syria has one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons of any country
The Prime Minister said the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on 10 other occasions before the attack that killed up to 1,200 in Damascus last week and warned the world 'should not stand idly by'
Of any military strike's consequences, Lord West said: 'Iran has said if anything happened it would unleash terrorist attacks, so you might have some reprisals here.'
Lord Dannatt questioned the legality and purpose of the proposed military strike, describing the plans as inappropriate.
He said Assad's probable use of chemical weapons, however wrong, did 'not constitute an open invitation for the international community to impose themselves on the internal affairs of another country.'
The general, who headed the British intervention in Kosovo in 1999, said an intervention could result in 'fuelling the conflict and making it worse'.
Q&A: WOULD A MILITARY STRIKE ON SYRIA BE LEGAL?
Would bombing Syria be lawful?
Britain and the US insist it would be, but the truth is far from clear. It's hard to see how Syria's reported chemical attacks against its own citizens present a direct threat to either country.
What specific laws or UN conventions might be used as justification?
The UN Charter allows for military action on only two grounds in self-defence, or if action is approved by the UN Security Council. Neither applies here.
Russia has made clear its intention to veto any proposed Security Council resolution authorising action as has China.
Can a military strike be legal without a UN resolution?
Unclear. In 1999, the Nato bombing campaign against Serbia was launched without one, with Tony Blair and President Clinton seeking to justify it on humanitarian grounds to protect Kosovan civilians.
The intervention was widely welcomed, but its legality was questionable. A similar humanitarian argument is being used to defend intervention in Syria.
If President Assad is proved to have launched poison gas attacks on his own people, he will be in breach of the Geneva Gas Protocol, an international agreement dating back to 1925 to which Syria is a signatory banning the use of chemical weapons.
But breaching the protocol doesn't provide a clear justification for military action and it normally applies to international conflicts, rather than civil wars.
Does the UN have a 'Responsibility to Protect' the Syrians?
In 2005, following the hideous atrocities committed in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, the UN brought forward an initiative called the 'Responsibility to Protect'.
It was designed to protect the innocent from genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing and places a duty on individual states to prevent such horrors within their borders, and an obligation to intervene if they see it elsewhere.
But former UN assistant Secretary-General, Francesc Vendrell, says the doctrine does not necessarily justify the use of force.
All diplomatic efforts must have been tried first, and even then military intervention requires the backing of the Security Council taking David Cameron and President Obama back to square one.
Does the PM need Parliamentary backing for a bombing campaign?
Technically, no. He retains the power, under Royal Prerogative, to use military force without Parliamentary approval.
However, all recent major military interventions including the wars in Iraq and Libya have been preceded by a Commons vote. The Government has made clear it will 'respect the outcome' of tonight's.
General Cordingley, who led the Desert Rats during the liberation of Kuwait, said: 'There is a danger Assad will retaliate against us. More widely, yet again people in the Arab world will say the West is dropping more bombs on the Middle East.
'It might not heighten the threat of terrorism at home, but it certainly will do nothing to reduce it.'
Syrian prime minister Wael al-Halqi responded to the threat of military intervention by warning his war-torn country would become a 'graveyard of the invaders'.
And a Syrian army officer has claimed Assad could use kamikaze pilots to combat Western forces.
The unnamed officer told the Guardian that, in the event of an attack by the US and Britain, the Syrian army had 8,000 'suicide martyrs' who would give their lives to bring down warplanes.
'I myself am ready to blow myself up against US aircraft carriers to stop them attacking Syria and its people,' he said.