22 Aug 2013

Does Britain have the military muscle to intervene in Syria?

With commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and cuts in the defence budget that will take army numbers down to a 150-year low, could Britain intervene in Syria even if we wanted to?

As diplomatic pressure mounts on Syria, several countries have raised the possibility of military intervention if it could be proved that chemical weapons were used in the civil war.

France, Australia and Germany have condemned the action and suggested that something might be done

But with heavy cuts planned to the military, could Britain intervene even if we wanted to?


The likelihood of military intervention is very slight, says Andrew Dorman, a Professor of International Security at King’s College London.

“I don’t think the US government will intervene in Syria, it’s not clear that there’s any one side that they would want to take. There would be no legitimacy for it if there hasn’t been a UN resolution. If it can be proved that chemical weapons were used, that’s a game-changer.

“There’s also British public opinion post-Iraq, which means a very high level of evidence will be required before the public will support it.”

That’s echoed by the former head of the British Armed Forces, General Sir David Richards, commenting just before his departure in July. He said that a lack of international consensus and splintered rebel forces would make a military solution in Syria difficult.

The departing general said the priority was to contain the situation better, adding that if military action were contemplated “the UK won’t do anything by itself – it will act with allies, in particular with the USA”.

“I think it’s very unlikely that we would see boots on the ground, but we must never take any of the options off the table.”

The MoD would only reiterate that today saying that “All options are on the table,” but that the responsibility lay with the Foreign office. “Currently it’s not a military concern, we’re looking at political solutions”.

And if there were to be a military intervention – the extent to which British resources were deployed would depend on what exactly the international community wanted to achieve, Professor Dorman said: “If you want to support an embargo, you need aircraft and ships. If you want to seize chemical weapons, that’s involves putting troops on the ground, but only in the short-term. If it’s about separating warring factions then you would send troops in, a much bigger risk and much more difficult.

“If you want to restore peace, that’s a very long-term commitment.”

State of the British army

But even if we did want to – could we? The British armed forces is taking a series of heavy cuts, that will reduce personnel and capability by 2015.

Thanks to the 2010 Strategic defence and security review the yearly defence budget has taken a 8 per cent cut, which added to a deficit, experts calculate works out as a real terms cut of 18% a year.

The military is on track to reduce soldiers significantly by 2020, with the total army personnel projected to be down to 84,000 by then, from 104,250 in 2013, a 150 year low according to a report commissioned by MPs.

Comments from the General Houghton today in a Ministry of Defense publication Defense Focus, suggest that the British army is low on morale too.

He said that cuts risked making army personnel “cynical and detached.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said that the UK’s foreign policy in Syria would not be constrained by cuts, citing British involvement in Libya two years ago and Gibraltar this summer as evidence that Britain’s military capability was capable of operating to support British foreign policy when needed. The spokesman also said that the comments by General Houghton were taken out of context .

But Professor Dorman says that characterisation of the Armed Forces as smaller and demoralised is not suprising.

“The 2010 Spending Review accepts that capability will be reduced by the cuts.”

And yes, morale is low. “It’s that same as in any large organisation that has been downsizing, morale usually drops across most areas.”


The budget of the British army has gone up since 2003, but numbers of soliders has decreased and is set to decrease even more. Spending on equipment has gone up since 2003, but this may be set to fall in the next few years as the overall Defence budgets dips.

The shift from man to machines is part of a recalibration of the Armed Forces to fight different kinds of wars.